Interns-Coops Directors Cut


Although the CMA-Magazine article was largely faithful to the original work, this director’s cut provides additional details that may be of interest to your organization.  As well I have included additional resources I have collected on inter/co-op/work experience related programs.  If you have some material you wish to included, please send it to me (I accept public domain, creative-commons licensed or free-copyrighted material).

What Exactly Are We Talking About Here, Anyway?

Some definition work is probably in order here.  Although the title is internship, in reality the following can be used, applied or retro-fitted to a variety of other programs including Internships, Cooperative Education and Work-Experience programs.  The table Intern Definitions provides a handy reference for all of this nomenclature.  As well, and just to confuse things, when I say co-op/interns (lower case) I mean most permutations of Management Interns, Cooperative Education Students, Work Experience, etc….

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The Value Proposition: Employer and the Intern

Coop/intern programs have both explicit costs (wages, space, supplies) and implicit costs such as management time, mentoring effort and some short-term loss of productivity on the part of permanent staff and supervisors. This is not a new problem, in a 1986 study, “…only 61 percent of surveyed United States CPA firms ever participated in a student internship program, and only 40 percent were currently participating. Those not participating cited the lack of time needed for organizing and implementing a successful internship program as the reason for not being involved.” [2].

Nevertheless, the value of a coop/intern program is that it provides low cost help, reduces hiring risk, lowers staff turn over and helps to balance project or seasonal demand on staff. Some of the less common and innovative reasons to run a program includes: the ability to experiment with new positions and personnel without a long-term commitment and the development of on-campus and community ambassadors for your organization.

As for the participants, internships offer a chance to learn new skills, build networks, have a good paying first job and sometimes, know what an intern does NOT want to do with the rest of their lives.

Because a poorly run program can create a negative reputation for an organization, a best practice is to run a quality program or none at all.  A quality program, according to Julie Cunningham, president of the Cunningham Group [1] has the following elements : 1) Support of upper and hiring level management; 2) A well-organized and structured selection process; 3) Good orientation; 4) Equitable compensation and benefits; 5) Well defined duties and expectations; 6) Open communications; 7) Good Evaluation process including a mid and exit interview. Other elements to consider include supervisor and/or mentor training, a database to track potential and current hires, meaningful work and an opportunity to network.

By using the co-op/intern Relationship Model, discussed below – organizations and interns can benefit from a quality program that maximizes the value to all parties while reducing the risk and downside.  But, before discussing how to run a great program – perhaps some tips on HOW NOT to run an internship program.

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10 Great Ways to NOT Run an Internship

A little tongue in cheek, I have come across the following coop/intern program suggestions (NOT!).  Setting aside the Bill Clinton’esque type of abuses – things to try to avoid.

  • 10 – Be ill prepared for the intern’s arrival, spring the intern on an unsuspecting department (see number 1 of this other top 10 list).
  • 9 – Think of co-ops/interns as being only twenty-something young adults; completely ignore the benefits and value new Canadians or older candidates who are changing careers.  Both groups bring maturity and a wealth of experience.
  • 8 – Try to avoid any meaningful work; photocopying is a career right?
  • 7 – Prevent the intern from learning about the organization or networking within it.
  • 6 – Don’t pay the intern – even better – promise a starvation wage and then cut it in half.
  • 5 – Use the intern to replace a full time employee; even better get the employee to train the unpaid intern before being laid off.
  • 4 – Either ignore them or mumble that they are doing a great job.  Later refuse to give them a reference because of their poor performance.
  • 3 – Tell them they are guaranteed a job if they finish the internship and then say; “oops sorry, no more work”.
  • 2 – Select a disinterested supervisor – even better – change the supervisor often once they begin to show interest in the coop/intern.
  • 1 – Avoid anything smacking of being a mentor, a coach or a good example.  Work is a scary place for a young person, new Canadian or someone switching careers.  Make it even more intimidating!

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Internship a Lifecycle Approach

So now that we know how not to run an internship, here is my suggestion on how to run it.  It is based on both experience and a review of literature.  Central to my method is the Co-op/intern Relationship Model.  This model is a process flow taking in raw talent on one end and creating a potential employee/graduate/program advocates for your organization on the other end.  The central assumption of the model is that you are running a continuous program and are constantly bringing in interns (e.g. hiring every few months or annually).  Even if you are not doing this, the model still can help you think through the occasional hire – scale the suggestions up or down depending upon your circumstances.  The model has 9 distinct attributes which are discussed in more detail below.

Coop/Intern Relationship Model

Coop/Intern Relationship Model

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Phase 1: The Right Infrastructure

Infrastructure to support a co-op/intern program should focus on four critical elements: 1) organization support; 2) over-lapping placement; 3) process documentation; and, 4) community liaison.

The most critical infrastructure requirement is strong and ongoing senior management and organizational support for the program. In particular, be sure senior management supports the principle of over-lapping placement.

Over-lapping placement is the key to an efficient co-op/intern program and the train-the-trainer model discussed below. It is accomplished by having at least two co-op/interns who will start and leave on an over-lapping interval. For example, and as indicated in the above graphic, if you are hiring co-op students, only hire them for two successive semesters (e.g. an eight month engagement) and then plan to constantly hire a new co-op every 4 months. In this way, your organization will always have a senior and a junior individual.

Because of the overlap, an organization can delegate much of the on-boarding and initial supervision effort to the senior coop/intern. You can support this downloading of knowledge by developing standardized procedures for the activities to be trained on. This is a win-win situation all the way around. You get documentation relevant to the entire organization that is being constantly reviewed and tested. Your permanent staff is saved from constantly on-boarding new individuals allowing them to focus on higher value-add training and ad hoc projects. Your senior co-op/intern is given a chance to practice mentoring/training skills in a highly supportive environment. Finally, your junior co-op/intern is brought up to speed quickly and is immediately challenged with meaningful work, a key best practice.

Part of the documentation effort should include a job description and learning plan for the co-op/intern. As well, plan to complete the same performance evaluations you would do for permanent employees.

The last element of infrastructure is the three way relationship between the co-op/intern, the employer and the academic institution or applicant pool. Maintain a post secondary recruitment presence and relationship; ask college department heads in fields applicable to your organization to recommend students/graduates; maintain an ongoing link on your organization’s website to your co-op/inter program. This effort is critical so that the schools are steering the best candidates your way even before your posting goes up.

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Phase 2: Selection Process

When hiring permanent employees, the focus is on how to retain the individual after they have been selected. With co-op/interns, the focus is on how to migrate the individual to other future positions. Given the level of investment an organization will be making in a co-op/intern, it is critical to hire top candidates.

To get top candidates, plan to pay your co-op/intern 60% to 90% of an entry level position depending upon the level of academic completion, the individual and local labour conditions or union agreements. Unpaid internships in the United States seem to be more common. One web article suggests that in France some organizations hire 12 unpaid interns or stagiaires a year, one per month. After four months the organization has to pay them [3] but only for the remaining eight months.  Despite the temptation of free labour, Julie Cunningham notes that paid internships get you top talent, draws a broader pool of candidates and allows the employer to set expectations and demand deliverables.

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Phase 3: Onboarding

The first month of a program is the period of lowest productivity but it is when the tone for the experience is set. This is also when your previously hired intern transitions from the junior role to the senior role and takes on teaching responsibilities. Returning to the Coop/intern Relationship Model, the current junior co-op/intern should be preparing to on-board the new individual and move into the senior role. In programs I have run, most of the ordering of computer accounts, space assignment, review of documentation, etc. is done by the junior intern with the instructions to make the next on-boarding experience better and smoother than their own. As a result, about 80-90 percent of the on-boarding activities are done by an intern and my permanent staff need only monitor the activities to ensure they are completed correctly.

Because your permanent staff is not completing these activities, consider developing a certification process to ensure a quality onboarding process.  In my case, I have used a combination of documentation and an intern-question database to test their knowledge and absorption of the material. This phase was called ‘Government in a Flash’.

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Phase 4: Work Phase

The assignments given to your co-op/interns are a function of their education level and abilities. The University of Nevada, Las Vegas suggests a maximum of 20% administrative/menial work [4]. As a junior intern, this value may be closer to 90% to start declining to nearly 0% in the later part of their senior rotation with an average of 20%.

Documentation of discrete activities is an ideal initial activity for a co-op/intern. A handy rule is that a task can not be assigned without pre-existing documentation for the activity. Ensure you have writing guides, a place for the documentation and a permanent staff member to review the end product.

As a co-op/intern gains confidence, the complexity of their work can increase to include ad hoc or special projects. Ad hoc projects should be run using good project management principles and work assigned to an individual should be discrete enough that they can be accomplished within their tenure. Have enough auxiliary tasks assigned to the co-op/interns so that they do not have downtime waiting for you to assign work.

If you are using co-operative education students and they are required to complete work term reports, work with the academic institution’s co-op office to tailor these reports to your own organization or corporate needs.

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Phase 5: Supervise-Coach

The literature encourages organizations to have the best and most passionate supervisors work with co-op/interns. The problem with this suggestion is that good, passionate supervisors tend to be in high demand supervising permanent staff and projects. The Co-op/intern Relationship Model solution to this is three-fold: 1) use menial as a means to an end; 2) actively teach delegation; and, 3) teach mentoring and coaching.

Menial as a Means to an End. Get your new co-op/intern immediately productive by doing well documented administrative or transactional tasks in their first few days. Promote them to higher and more complex analytical tasks as they master these initial activities.

Teach Delegation. A continuation of the on-boarding phase, have your senior intern teach and delegate the transactional tasks described above.  Because today’s intern will be tomorrow’s executive or manager, teaching this ephemeral are early is critical and something lacking in most people’s education (for more on this, see the Phrankism: Delegation).

Teach Mentoring and Coaching. Use the co-op/intern as an opportunity for permanent staff and the senior intern to practice mentorship and coaching.  This is a critical skill for any individual and the sooner and better it can be learned and the craft honed, the better for the organization.

As the supervisor, don’t forget to constantly be in touch with the co-op/intern to see how they are doing beyond the immediate tasks at hand (adapting to the organization, networking, the commute, childcare, etc.). This can be done informally or via more formal weekly sessions.  At this point it is important to remember that co-op/interns are a supplement and not a replacement for permanent staff. As well, task accountability can be delegated to the co-op/intern but responsibility remains with the permanent employee.

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Phase 6: Mentor-Continuum

The relationship between yourself and an individual co-op/intern should evolve from a supervisor to a coach and finally to a mentor. As work is completed be sure to consistently debrief and refocus the co-op/intern on how the recent experience fits with their career plans and where on their resume they can reference it.

Active mentorship has several benefits: 1) co-op/interns who have a positive experience are more likely to accept a permanent position; 2) Engaged mentors can make a better assessment of an individual; 3) co-op/interns are more likely to report back to academic institutions, friends/families and others on a positive experience; 4) A happy intern is a productive intern! [5].

To paraphrase the African proverb, ‘It Takes an Organization to Mentor an Intern.’ Encourage the individual to network through social and work-related committees, assign a permanent employee similar in age to the co-op/intern as a buddy, and have the senior co-op/intern mentor the junior.

As the co-op/intern moves towards to separation phase, consider arranging information interviews with senior people within the organization.  If the engagement is a cooperative education program, consider making this part of the educational assignments.  For other types of engagements, encourage them to discuss with a senior person questions such as 1) how did you get to this position; 2) what keeps you here and gets you up in the morning to come to work; 3) should I work for this organization and why; 4) are you hiring and what would be the top three things I could do to help you achieve your objectives?

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Phase 7: Separation

The separation phase will lead directly to one of two next steps, either migration to a position within the organization or an alumni association for the graduate. Both are equally important. Just like permanent employees, conduct an exit interview to understand what went well with the program and where to improve. Have the departing coop/intern critique and recommend changes and improvements to the program. For co-operative education students, consider whether the individual can migrate to a part-time or seasonal role until they graduate.

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Phase 8: Migration within the Organization (or variations thereof)

Migration is when a co-op or intern program adds its greatest organizational value. Moving well trained and vetted individuals into positions of greater responsibility within your organization results in recruitment savings, higher immediate productivity in the new position and a reduction in hiring risk.

During the selection process you should be upfront and honest about job prospects post separation – be sure that you can make good on any promises about job offers. The number of co-op/intern graduates who immediately take a position after completing their program with their employer varies widely. The US Central Intelligence Agency, for example, converts about 85 percent of their interns to permanent employees [6]. I would suggest that a 50% conversion rate is the minimum standard for accounting and financial professionals. Provide conditional offers to co-op students before they return to school to either permanent positions or into a pre-professional internship. Encourage summer and part-time students to apply for either co-op or intern positions.

Establish a benchmark ‘conversion rate’ for both co-ops and interns and measure and reward managers against this standard. If you can not migrate your future senior leaders after their engagement is completed, at least register them in an alumni program.

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Phase 9: Organization Alumni

The government of Nova Scotia sees their ‘Career Start’ program not only as a source of future employees but also a program contributing to the “public good” that helps to develop and retain professional expertise within the province. As a result, graduates who take positions with other organizations are seen as strength of the program rather than its failing [7]. If you are a not-for-profit organization, view your current co-op/interns as future members of boards, foundation donors or community advocates (Shameless plug – see my 2004 article: The Benefits of an Active Corporate Alumni).

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Concluding Thoughts, Comments and Next Steps

For a modest investment of direct costs, management time and goodwill; organizations can gain a strong advantage in the talent wars by recruiting staff early in their careers.  For further information about this advantage, the following free resources are suggested reading:

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References and Links

For those interested in learning more or accessing some of the references, please visit the following freebies and web resources I have found:

  1. International City/County Management Association, Internship Toolkit [8].
  2. Alberta Public Service Internship Program, Intern Supervisors Handbook [9].
  • [1] p. 7: Anon; Plan for the Most Effective Internship Programs; HR Focus, 2005, 82, 9, 7 (Potter-346)
  • [2] p. 28: Henry, Linvol G.; Razzouk, Nabil Y.; Hoverland, Hal; Accounting Internships: A Practical Framework Journal of Education for Business, 1988, 64, 1, 28 (Potter-363)
  • [3] McGinty, Craig; The stagiaire generation; 2006, Accessed: 2013-May-19, 2, This French Life ( (Potter-404)
  • [4] p. 10: University of Nevada, Employers Guide to Building a Quality Internship Program 2008, Accessed 2013-May-19, (Potter-389)
  • [5]/[6] p. 34/38: Gates, Susan M.; Paul, Christopher; Intern Programs as a Human Resources Management Tool for the Department of Defense 2004, MG-138, 1-131, Office of the Secretary of Defense (Potter-392)
  • [7] p. 52:Dodge,R Bruce; McKeough,Mary; Internship and the Nova Scotia Government experience; Education & Training, 2003, 45, 1, 45 (Potter-331)
  • [8] International City/County Management Association; Internship Toolkit 2002, Accessed 2013-May-19 (Potter-369)
  • [9] Government of Alberta Intern Network; Alberta Public Service Internship Program – Supervisors Handbook – May 2012, Accessed 2013-May-19 2008  (Potter-399)

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