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How to keep interns engaged and why it's important

I’ve been an intern before. I’ve grabbed the coffees, cleaned the kitchen. I’ve even driven the boss’ car to pick someone up (didn’t mind that one). But on top of the trivial tasks, I also did some pretty meaningful work – tasks like writing proposals to attend conferences and making wicked presentations that were seen by hundreds of people. These tasks benefited the business and freed up other employees’ time.

Meaningless tasks are part of the intern life, but that’s okay as long as you get to do challenging and rewarding stuff too. If an intern is engaged and learning then they can be very productive and beneficial to your business.

Here’s why I think it’s important to keep interns engaged:

  • An engaged intern will achieve better results and free up your ‘real’ employees’ time, allowing them to do more important tasks.
  • Treating your interns poorly says a lot about your company culture. An intern may even write about how awful their experience was on their blog, and who wants to have to deal with the consequences of that? Far-fetched? Maybe. Impossible? No.
  • An engaged intern will be more likely to want to take an entry level position after they complete their internship. Hiring a former intern is less risky than hiring a complete stranger for an entry level position.

I’m guessing a lot of you who are reading this agree with the benefits of keeping interns engaged. The tricky part is how. Interns have no experience and require a lot of hand-holding which takes valuable time away from the employees who are responsible for managing them. Below are three ideas on how to keep interns engaged so you can free up your time and focus on your responsibilities:

  • Before you take on an intern, develop a project that they can focus on and run with. Let them know that this is their project and they are responsible for the results. This will make them feel more like a full-time employee and free up your time, too.
  • Challenge them. Assign them a task that’s beyond their skill level and ability and see what they come back with. It’s important to let them know that their assignment is beyond their abilities so as not to discourage them. Young people like a challenge, especially if they think it’s ‘cool’. And who knows, they may even come back with a great result. Bonus.
  • Tell them about a challenge that is facing the company or a certain department. Let them brainstorm ideas on how they would tackle the challenge. Not only is this a great way to engage them, they may also come up with some great ideas.

An engaged intern will be productive and eager to take on the menial tasks. If you’re going to have interns why not treat them as a potential employee and get them to be as productive as one?

Do you have interns at your company? How do you keep them engaged?

2 Comments

  1. Great subject! I couldn’t agree more. The days of “copy and coffee” interns is over – or at least it should be! (You few employers stuck in the Stone Age know who you are…)

    From a practical standpoint, engaging interns makes total sense. As Nathaniel points out “Hiring a former intern is less risky than hiring a complete stranger” – you’ve already trained your intern and know their work ethic because you engaged them in the company. Also their ramp up time is already built into their internship – no productivity loss.

    We encourage all of the start-ups we work with to engage in mentoring, and reverse-mentoring relationships with their interns. Make your own damn coffee! Instead of teaching your interns to work the copy machine – challenge and mentor them to help them build their potential!

  2. Nathaniel Rottenberg

    February 17, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    Thanks for the comment Dave!

    Great point about there being less of a ramp up time. Interns will be familiar with the all your systems as well as the general workings of your office.

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