They invest significant time and money developing basic business protocol habits, imparting technical skills and fostering strong relationships with the workforce’s next generation.
Yet, companies often don’t see their hard work pay off because they fail at the simplest, most critical of tasks—keeping in touch with interns after they return to school.
"It is a missed opportunity," says Steve Rothberg, CEO of CollegeRecruiter.com, a Minneapolis-based job board. "Staying in touch with alums is probably one of the least expensive aspects of any successful internship program, yet I have seen many companies stop before crossing the finish line."
Fortunately, there are strategies and tools employers can use to ensure that the relationships they developed with summer interns remain strong and healthy throughout their final year at school.
Mentorship programs and online social networking sites are among the high-tech techniques employers can use to reinforce a recruiting call when graduation rolls around in the spring. But even a low-tech birthday card works wonders for keeping in touch.
Understanding what’s at stake
By the time an intern returns to school in the fall, employers have already incurred the bulk of their costs associated with the program. Rothberg says there are three key expenditures that go into running the programs—recruiting costs, compensation and training time.
Depending on the type of employer involved, cost varies dramatically. Recruiting for a basic services company can cost a few hundred dollars, while attracting interns for investment banking can be several thousand dollars, he explains.
The average salary for those interns who receive compensation runs at $15 to $20 an hour, though it could be much higher if it is in a field such as law, which requires specific skills. Pinpointing the percentage of interns receiving compensation is difficult because there are no official statistics. Rothberg, however, believes it’s less than 40 percent.
The most expensive aspect of an internship program is the training, as seasoned professionals must take time out of their busy schedules to do some hand-holding. This often includes passing along basic tips on business etiquette—dress code, office protocol and even such basics as not instant messaging during a meeting—things that are second nature to most workers but unfamiliar territory to interns.
"You have to remember that internships are the first professional experience for many of these young people," he says.
What really drives up cost is the time it takes to provide technical training, he explains. The rule of thumb holds particularly true in fields such as investment banking, where training an intern can easily run in the range of $25,000 to $50,000.
"We are dealing with some very expensive people doing the training," Rothberg says, "not to mention the cost of using high-end software and other technology."
Return on investment
Employers often want to convert promising summer interns into full-time workers when they graduate, says workforce consultant and author Sylvia Henderson.
For this to happen, employers must maintain the bond they established with their interns—a task easier said than done, considering they are at school for the next nine months and are no longer physically at the company. Henderson recommends establishing mentorship programs through which employees stay in touch.
"They can help them brace for the maze of social and academic challenges sure to arise during the year," she notes.
Staying in touch with interns does not have to be a time-consuming task and could be as simple having a mentor sending e-mails. The messages can be something as casual as a greeting or as pragmatic as a listing of professional opportunities at the company.
Regardless of the approach, it is important to keep corresponding regularly—at least once a month—so the company remains on an intern’s mind, she notes.
Another way of keeping former interns engaged is by sending them the company’s electronic newsletter, Henderson notes. Not only does it keep them abreast of changes in the company but it also makes them feel like an insider.
"Former interns will feel like they continue to be part of a community," she says.
Interns may be away at school, but that shouldn’t preclude them from continuing to be involved in company business matters. Henderson says employers shouldn’t shy away from engaging students in projects.
"Invite former interns to contribute fresh ideas or suggestions on a project that you may be working on," she notes.
Ambassador programs are typically used as a recruiting tool on college campuses, Rothberg says. These initiatives entail compensating former interns for spreading the word about their experience at a specific company. Some ambassador programs may also require former interns to provide short presentations about an employer.
"They’ll be reliving their experiences whenever they tell the stories to other potential interns," he says.
Rothberg says companies don’t have to spend a lot on these efforts. In fact, he suggests that personal gestures can be just as powerful as lavishing them with expensive gifts.
"Sending handwritten birthday cards or pizzas during exam times can go a long way in strengthening bonds," he says. "They’ll appreciate it because they will realize your company cares for them on a personal level."
Technology lends a helping hand
Generally speaking, high-touch personal gestures are effective ways to cement ties with individuals. The downside is that they require energy and thought from already busy company executives.
Fortunately, technology can lend a hand. Companies such as New York-based SelectMinds have developed tools specifically tailored to help employers bolster relationships with interns.
SelectMinds’ social networking platform InternConnect maintains a link between a company and the hectic campus lives of former interns. InternConnect functions like Facebook, only it offers greater privacy and scalability, says Diane Pardee, chief marketing officer for SelectMinds.
Employers can configure the platform for various functions, including online forums, job postings or keeping up on company events. Pardee says that while the technology disseminates information, employers need not worry about coming across as impersonal.
"At its core, it is about creating a community and keeping in touch with friends," she explains.
It allows former interns to maintain in contact with one another, which can help to reinforce an ongoing team spirit among former interns.
"Even though they aren’t together anymore, they feel like a class of alums that once belonged to the same group," Pardee says. "That can be very powerful."
Further, this technology can be used to help bring people under one roof. Pardee recommends that employers post company events—conferences, seminars and chats—on this group. Not only will this notify them that the event is taking place, but it might encourage them to attend if it is something of interest.