Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s alone.
Last year I got involved with MECA Challenge, a one-day student innovation competition.
As part of the event, I presented high schoolers with a business problem my startup was currently tackling. I went in without expectations and was pleasantly surprised when my group of students came up with a great idea.
I promised to explore the idea further and went to work finding extra capacity to make that happen. Realizing that since the idea had come from students, the best way to develop it further was to continue working with young people. That meant I needed interns — a prospect I’d never tried before.
I discovered the Northland Center for Advanced Professional Studies, which provides high school students with a professional and entrepreneurial education through full immersion in high-demand careers.
“[The program] allows students the opportunity to test drive the real-world through projects and unpaid internships,” Northland CAPS project manager Allison Clemens said. “At the same time, businesses are able to engage associates into their environment and culture, building a pipeline for future employment.”
Soon after, I hired two student interns and created a program to use their strengths to better explore the idea created during MECA Challenge. The effort was a solid success, and now I’m often asked by other small business owners for insight on how to create a similar internship experience.
Here are my recommendations:
1. Develop a clear, well-defined plan of action.
Begin by outlining a project for the students to work on. It needs to be meaningful — don’t bring them in to fetch coffee and file paperwork — and self-contained so it can begin and end during their tenure.
Don’t expect the student to come up with the next big idea. Instead, make it easy for them to make an incremental improvement on an existing challenge.
2. Set the student up for success as you would an employee.
The CAPS program will provide you with students to interview. Interview them as you would an employee. This gives them great experience and ensures you are a good match.
Think through how you can help the student transition into the business world and improve their experience. Small things like having snacks available or welcoming the student with a simple sign make a big difference. Also, introduce the student to the rest of your team. Transparency is a must in best-in-class culture.
On their first day, make it easy for them to experience success. Give them small things to tackle and ease them into their work by layering on more information and additional tasks each week.
3. Make the internship a “wow experience.”
The internship and what the students tell others about your company is largely in your control. There are several things you can do from the get-go.
First, have patience. As a high school student, your intern is coming in with fewer life experiences than many people with which you are used to working. Know that you’re going to have to break things down and answer lots of questions.
Second, prepare to be flexible. They are students with a lot going on and things will come up.
Third, give the student all of the resources they need. Beyond that, be available and meet with the student weekly to discuss what’s going well and where improvements can be made.
Beyond the day-to-day, get creative. Introduce the student to experts in the field. Set up field trips where they can be exposed to new people and experiences. Give them an opportunity to present their findings to a bigger group of people.
4. Wrap up the internship the right way.
As the internship comes to a wrap, you will be asked to provide feedback on the student’s performance. Be honest. Your genuine insight will allow them to get better.
In addition, ask for their feedback. They are a huge asset in improving your program for next time.
And don’t forget to thank them. Write a letter of recommendation. Endorse them on LinkedIn. Give them a small token of appreciation.
If you follow these steps, you can learn a lot, make an impact on a local student’s life, improve your culture and move your business forward.
Brian Kearns is the founder of HipHire, an online service that connects businesses with quality part-time people to interview. He’s passionate about connecting employers and workers who share a vision for the ideal workplace culture.