How To Build An Internship Program That Works For The Interns

Companies with top-rated internships reveal the four ingredients every internship program needs besides pay.

How To Build An Internship Program That Works For The Interns
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For many, the internship represents that rite of passage from being a student to becoming a young professional. Internships help young adults apply what they’ve learned in their studies to the real world. It is an internship at a coveted company, many argue, that makes the recent college grad more marketable than her degree itself.


The reality can often be quite different. In recent years, internships have come under fire for sometimes being little more than a way for companies to exploit cheap or even free labor. But it’s not just big companies that have internship programs that seem designed to only better their bottom line. U.S. Congress is also guilty of this. A study has shown that young adults might be better off not taking an unpaid internship, as doing so can damage long-term graduate pay prospects. No wonder some interns are starting to sue.

Of course, not every company offers internships that make their interns feel so unhappy or used. Some interns have nothing but praise for their programs. As CNBC reports, in 2017, job-seeking firm WayUp asked current interns to submit nominations for the companies with the best internships. Among the top 10 companies that interns voted as having the best programs were Newell Brands, maker of such office staples as Elmer’s Glue and Paper Mate pens, and cosmetics giant L’Oréal. We spoke to their internship program execs to find out what other companies should keep in mind when designing an internship program to ensure it works for the intern. Here’s what they said besides, obviously, “Pay them.”

Related: Stop Wasting Your Intern’s Potential And Get Your Own Coffee

1. The Right Intern Manager Makes All The Difference

Most companies fret over getting the best interns, but they should first make sure they have the best internship manager to oversee the program, according to Sumita Banerjee, senior vice president of talent acquisition for L’Oréal Americas. The company offers a widely sought-after summer internship that only accepts 150 of the 20,000 applicants it receives.

“You can have the best programming, networking events, speaker series, etc., but your intern(s) must have strong, communicative managers. Managers can make or break the work environment for interns, and this is especially important when the time period is only a few months,” says Banerjee. She recommends that all internship managers receive training in how to teach and manage interns who have often never worked in the professional world before. Taking the extra time to be sure the internship manager has the skills to manage young people will pay dividends down the line, she says. And remember: “These managers are your company’s brand ambassadors, and they are on the front lines of the internship every day–they need to be your best.”

2. Give Your Interns Real, Meaningful Work

No one applies for an internship with the dream of delivering coffee. “At Newell Brands, all our interns are given individual ‘hero projects’ that they are responsible for completing throughout their 12-week program,” says Christine Terminello, manager of campus recruiting at Newell. This year, the company is expanding its internship program to accommodate 250 interns, up from 140 last year.


Related: How I Got A Great Internship With Crappy College Grades

These hero projects are designed by business leaders and designed to help solve real problems businesses face. At the end of the internship, Newell’s interns will present their solutions to a panel of business leaders. “It’s very common that our interns’ recommendations are implemented, giving them the opportunity to make a real impact on our business and further showcase their potential as a full-time employee,” says Terminello. And that gives the interns something to showcase on their resume when they start applying for jobs.

3. Make Feedback An Ongoing Dialogue

While giving an intern a meaningful project to work on, don’t just drop it in their lap and then check in the day before their internship ends to see how they did.  At L’Oréal, ongoing feedback is a key principle to the development of our employees at every level of the organization,”says Banerjee.

And feedback is a two-way street, which is why L’Oréal has created multiple “touchpoints” for interns to not only receive ongoing feedback, but provide it as well. “There should be a dialogue between the interns and their managers, HR, and senior leadership so that everyone gains greater awareness on how to better leverage our strengths and improve on our development areas,” says Banerjee.

4. Establish This Benchmark For Success

But even if your internship program is designed to include capable managers providing meaningful work to the intern with healthy two-way dialogue, how can a company judge if the internship was a success? Newell’s Terminello says the answer should be obvious: How many of those interns do you hire after their internship is complete?

Related: What It Really Takes To Get An Internship At Google, Facebook, Apple, And More


“Since our Summer Internship Program’s goal is to create a pipeline for entry-level talent, our biggest indicator of success is the intern-to-full-time conversion rate and offer acceptance rate,” she says. After all, the goal of an internship should be to help mold students into capable young professionals. If your internship is actually designed to help your interns achieve this goal, why would you want to let another company hire them away after you’ve helped train them?

This is why Newell has established a clear recruiting timeline and hiring goals to measure against throughout the academic calendar. “As a result, we’ve successfully increased our conversion rate of individuals being promoted from intern to full-time employee over the past several years,” says Terminello. The result? “Last year we offered 72% of interns a full-time position.”

Now that’s an internship to get excited about.


About the author

Michael Grothaus is a novelist, journalist, and former screenwriter. His debut novel EPIPHANY JONES is out now from Orenda Books. You can read more about him at