A big welcome to our new intern Camilla, who started with us this week. Camilla has just returned from Washington DC where she was a Koch Summer Fellow. Before this she studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at the University of Exeter, where she co-founded the first PPE society, interned at The Times, and regularly contributed to the campus paper. Our intern programme has been running for about 18 months now and we’re rightly proud of it. We are often asked about our approach to interns – how and where we recruit, what we offer them and the role they fulfil – so here’s ZPB’s guide to all things interny.
1. It’s an intern programme, not cheap labour. If cheap labour is what you want, be honest about that up front (if only to yourself), and call it something else. A good intern programme has to be mutually beneficial: you help graduates get a foot on the career ladder, and in return, you get a bright, ambitious enthusiast on your team. Treating them as a regular member of the team guarantees that you and they get so much more out of the role. We’re extremely proud that a previous ZPB intern ended up taking a permanent role with one of our clients.
2. Produce a proper and professional job description. What are you recruiting an intern to do? Research for a specific project? General team support? A junior press officer? We tend to use a variation on this job spec. Think about what kind of person you want to attract and with what interests, and only then should you decide where to run your ad. We want bright young things with an interest in public services and policy, so work4MP works well for us. It’s free to post a job and we get an average of 65 applications per job, with a high standard of applicants.
3. Don’t interview too many people. You’ll get a lot of timewasters applying. It’s easy to spot people who’ve fired off a generic covering letter or simply haven’t researched what you do (one application thought ZPB was a fund manager based in Greece). Be harsh – don’t put the ‘maybes’ through and try to keep your shortlist to no more than 10 for a phone interview. Any more than that and you’ll get bored, forget who the first person was and won’t give any of them a decent hearing. Try and have more than one person doing phone interviews with a rough script so you can compare notes. Use these calls to whittle it down to the best two for face-to-face interviews.
4. Feedback honestly to unsuccessful candidates. Some companies don’t feedback at all. But with an intern programme, helping even the unsuccessful candidates get over the first hurdle of producing a decent CV is your first responsibility. All applicants, especially those who gave up time for a phone interview, should have feedback. Every interaction anyone has with your business should reflect your brand and your ethos – even if it’s only a phone interview. If you don’t have the decency to acknowledge someone’s application, they’ll leave with a bad taste in their mouth.
5. Think about their contract length. We started out with three-month contracts but now offer a minimum of four months. We found this extra time helped the intern assimilate into the team, learn skills and by the end deliver their own projects. Also you’ll feel less like you are on a recruitment treadmill, always having just recruited or posting an advert for their successor.
6. Use them wisely. Use the intern for the role you recruited them for. It’s very easy to ask them to book trains, make the tea or return your unwanted shoes to ASOS. In small companies everyone has to muck in and sometimes this will be the necessity. But if it’s a PA you need, then recruit one. Expose them to different parts of the business and give them as many interesting tasks as possible. Take the time to explain why the mail merge is particularly important, who those letters are going to and why, and they’ll moan less when asked to stuff those 1,500 envelopes.
7. Give them access to training and development opportunities. This doesn’t have to mean digging into your dwindling training budget. If you don’t have the budget but do have a long list of boring tasks, make up for it by letting them develop new skills on the job or by shadowing other team members. We often send interns on the General Assembly courses, which are often extremely good value and generally get excellent feedback.
8. Keep in mind their suitability for a permanent role. An internship is the best selection process someone can go through. You’ll learn heaps about them, much more than even the best interview or assessment centre can give you. Are they reliable? How do they cope under pressure? Do they have a sense of humour? Do they get on with the rest of the team? If you think your intern is great then offer them a permanent role, even if you need to be flexible with budgets and hiring strategies. If you don’t you might regret it two months later when you reluctantly hire a recruiter to find you a new team member.
9. But be honest when you don’t have one available. Don’t give any intern the expectation a permanent role is rightfully theirs. Keep communicating with them in a transparent way. If there isn’t a job at the end for them, give them time off to attend interviews and be honest and constructive about good and bad points when they attend these (if you’ve succeeded in giving them a fulfilling intern job, you’ll find they’re fully committed to finishing their job with you first). If you think an intern is great but can’t hire them, recommend them to clients and colleagues.
10. Remember point one: it’s an intern programme, not cheap labour.