Growing Your Own Talent: Creating an Internship Program

Let’s face it; the insurance industry is standing on the brink of a talent gap.  An increasingly competitive job market and negative perceptions of our industry mean that hiring managers often face an uphill battle recruiting new talent.  So if you can’t find the applicants you’re looking for, maybe you can nurture them.  That’s where an internship program comes into play.

There’s lots of information out there about how to set up an internship program.  (My Google search yielded 40,100,000 results.)  Still, the experience too often leaves both employers and interns dissatisfied.  With that in mind, here are four tips to help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls.

Choose the applicants carefully.

It can be a real temptation, especially for new programs, to accept anyone who agrees to participate.  But your selection process for interns ought to be at least as rigorous as your hiring process for full-time employees.  Practically, this means developing job descriptions and creating or modifying application forms and evaluation tools.

First, clarify expectations for the internship experience.  From the employer’s side, this means identifying roles within your existing teams that a conscientious intern can succeed in and yet be “stretched” by.  (Notice I said roles, not tasks.)  Take the ages and/or work experiences of candidates and the duration of their internships into consideration.  Also, be sure to consult with team members at every level of your organization. In particular, include the individuals who will directly supervise the interns.  This approach has the added benefit of building internal support for the program.

Equally important, clarify the interns’ expectations.  Connecting with individuals like those you hope to recruit helps you get a more realistic understanding of both the abilities that candidates bring to the internship and what skills they want to develop.  Partnering with educational institutions and job placement services can help you make these connections.

Provide meaningful work experiences.

Honestly, what is a young person supposed to learn from making coffee and lunch runs, doing the scanning or shredding, etc?  Don’t dump boring, menial tasks on your interns and expect them to come away with a positive impression of your company!

That doesn’t mean that interns need to receive the full training that a new hire would undergo. But try teaching them how to perform one or two key tasks that genuinely contribute to the successful outcome of a project.

Shadowing a variety of employees can also be a way to enrich the internship experience. Let an intern sits with you while you make phone calls and respond to emails. Walk them through entering data or completing paperwork. Invite them to sit in on meetings. Afterward, discuss why you made the choices you did.

Don’t be afraid to match mentors and interns from different areas of interest either. Just as cross-training your employees helps them develop a deeper understanding of the start-to-end workflow, letting interns explore a wider range of roles may help them discover unsuspected aptitudes and interests.

Be sure to devote time to so-called soft skills as well. It’s a common complaint that younger employees don’t know “the basics”. This includes professional dress, phone etiquette, face-to-face communication, etc. Don’t forget that in recent decades, many schools eliminated opportunities to acquire these skills in order to focus on their core curriculum. Yes, tastes and expectations change over time. But teaching interns how to adapt to various corporate cultures and business settings is invaluable!

Provide Appropriate Supervision

We all appreciate self-starters and employees capable of working independently, but appropriate supervision is essential for an internship program. Be sure to take the ages and work experiences of interns into account when determining the level of supervision needed.

As part of their orientation process, interns should receive information about the company’s sexual harassment policy and reporting methods. The power differential in this relationship is even greater than that between a manager and employee. So special attention needs to be paid to keeping things on a professional level. Employees participating in the program also need to be aware of generational differences in communication and learning styles to avoid unnecessary friction.

Remember, too, that skill doesn’t necessarily equal wisdom. For example, a younger intern may be very able at social media use, but unaware that posts that are appropriate on a personal account may not align with your company’s online image. Learning these differences is part of the value of the internship experience.

Document the training that interns receive and regularly evaluate their job performance. When addressing performance issues, always try to adopt a positive approach. It is also important to get feedback from the interns about their impressions of the program.

Follow the Appropriate Labor Laws

Ah, the unpaid internship … the delight of budget-conscious corporate managers in the 1990s and 2000s! Nowadays, however, the legal view of such arrangements has changed significantly. While laws vary from state to state, the Department of Labor’s Primary Beneficiary Test provides a useful starting point to determine how interns should be compensated.

Additionally, employers need to review how interns fit into their insurance coverage. While healthcare benefits usually don’t apply, leaders need to understand how their liability and worker’s compensation insurance deal with interns.

It’s a Win-Win Situation

Successful internship programs take the needs and goals of both employees and interns into consideration and provide a safe, nurturing environment that protects all parties. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement. Additionally, the insurance industry fundamentally is about helping people. That ethos speaks to young professionals eager to make a meaningful contribution to our world. That has the making of a true win-win situation!

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