Startup Founder

How to make the most of your interns and student hires in a tight employment market

For months now, newspaper headlines have been talking about Canada’s low unemployment rate – the lowest in decades.

We didn’t need headlines to tell us that. It’s been evident for some time that companies like ours are finding it more difficult to attract talent.

One pool of talent tech companies need to pay particular attention to in the current context is students – the ones you hire during the summer, and those who come at other times of the year for placements that are part of their course requirements.

We’ve just said goodbye to our summer group, and that got me thinking about how we approach the hiring of students and interns.

We’ve worked hard to create an environment that profits both the company and its student hires. Over the years that policy has paid off in more ways than one. We have had many former students and interns come back as full-time employees. And, because they enjoyed the experience so much, many of those we didn’t hire have gone on to become brand ambassadors for the company.

Here’s our approach:

1. We treat all interns and students as future hires

This is probably the most important lesson we’ve learned, and I think it should underlie every company’s approach to hiring students and interns. Students and interns aren’t people just passing through, nor are they second-class workers. They are, every single one of them, potential future employees.

And that means they should be treated as such – with interest and respect.

You want to treat them in such a way that when they leave they feel good about the whole experience – the work, the culture, the social environment, the learning opportunities. The aim is that they will want to come back.

2. We place students or interns in all our teams

We’re a tech company, but that doesn’t mean we limit our student hires to people who can write code. We make an active effort to place students and interns in all our teams, including administration, sales and customer support.

Why?

Because students and interns have energy and ideas. And by placing them in every department, the entire company can benefit from fresh thoughts and youthful enthusiasm.

3. We give students and interns real work

We embed our students and interns in all our teams and get them involved in our projects as soon as possible. If we’ve hired them to write code, for example, they are shipping real code – not fetching coffee.

This gives them something they can point to with pride at the end of their placement. They can say, “I accomplished that!”

It’s not about throwing them into the deep end, but making them contributing members of a team. If they need to ask questions to get up to speed, we make sure they have a mentor or someone they can turn to.

Students and interns will rise to the challenge. We’ve found that if we set the bar high – if we expect a lot from our students – they will deliver. And they will enjoy the experience.

4. We pay them a salary

Sometimes, a student will offer to work for free.

We firmly decline such offers. We feel strongly that their work is valuable, and they should be paid for it.

It goes back to the first principle: Treat the students like real employees.

If you are not paying someone, it undervalues their contribution. And the working relationship is different. There’s less commitment. Besides, in today’s tight hiring environment, if someone is offering to work for free, alarm bells should be going off.

5. We give them an awesome experience

People spend a significant portion of their day at work. The experience should be enjoyable, both from a work perspective and from the point of view of interpersonal relationships.

We put a lot of effort into onboarding each cohort. We want to foster the idea that the students are part of the fabric of the company. We encourage them to bond with each other, and we do what we can to ensure they connect with full-time employees – people they can view as mentors. Friendships and social relationships are part of the mix; we think that the social element is important – it helps with engagement and retention.

(If you want to know what the students themselves think of our approach, check out this blog posting.)

In the end, your work culture is important. We want to foster an environment where you work with friends you respect, not just colleagues.

6. We build relationships with teaching institutions

If you want to attract the top students, it pays to develop a good working relationship with the teaching institutions where they study.

That means getting to know the profs, so that they can point promising students your way.

How to build a relationship? Sit on panels. Volunteer to speak in classes. Offer tours to groups of students. Anything that builds your company’s profile.

7. We build relationships with students

By creating a positive relationship with students and interns, we create a space in their minds for Klipfolio.

That has all kinds of positive fallout.

For starters, when they are in a position to look for a job, they will think of us.

And if they have enjoyed their experience at Klipfolio, they will talk positively about us to their fellow students and their teachers.

We figure that each student intern is an opportunity to reach at least 10 other students – and to have those 10 hear about what an amazing experience the internship was.

We find that students who come here on placement are looking for more than just learning. They want career advice and life advice too. They want to know whether they are in the right field. They want to know how to find their passion.

We create a positive experience by helping them build new skills and see a career path before them.

8. We make early offers of internships and summer hiring

Because the market is competitive, you cannot sit around and wait. If you come across a good student, someone whose skill set would contribute to your team, make them an offer as soon as you can.

We plan for students at least four months in advance, but we have already made offers for next summer to some of the students we hired this summer.

Some accept and end up working with us for two or three summers.

Others prefer to go get experience with other employers.

Either way, if they like what they’ve sampled at Klipfolio, there’s a good chance they’ll consider us when they are looking for a full-time job.

It’s also worth noting that more and more students are taking control of their own work terms. Instead of relying on the school to come up with a list of potential placements, they are reaching out themselves to places that interest them. And that may be earlier than you’d planned. It’s best to be ready.

9. We keep them engaged

Sometimes, a really promising student comes along. You may be able to keep that person engaged after their placement by offering them a part-time job. We’ve found that quite a few students are open to the idea.

(If we do offer a student a part-time job, we do make it clear that they are to put school first.)

You can also keep students engaged by inviting them to company events, or taking the time to see them if they happen to drop by the office.

In conclusion

A company may take in dozens of students and interns a year. It can seem routine. But remember ... for the students, the time with you is anything but routine.

Their time with you is hugely important to them. It might be their first real paying job. Or their first big break. Or the time they discovered their passion.

Make it as engaging and as memorable as possible.

Allan Wille is a co-founder of Klipfolio, and its president and CEO. He’s also a designer, a cyclist, a father and a resolute optimist.

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