Business Thoughts

How to Build an Internship Program that Fuels Your Talent Pipeline

No matter the industry or business, great work calls for great entry-level talent to get sh*t done. And while there’s no shortage of job-seekers, identifying strong entry-level talent is tough. Why? A couple reasons…

  • Experience is limited. Those with lots of experience have jobs lined up, and everyone else looks the same on paper.
  • Often times, what we’re hiring for doesn’t even come through on a resume. Think: initiative, intellectual curiosity, the desire to learn, grit.

While relevant experience is always important, we’re equally (if not more) concerned with a new hire’s initiative and values alignment — especially when hiring entry-level folks. We’ll hire a sharp problem-solver with killer work ethic over someone who simply interned at a digital agency any day. Your entry-level employees are the lifeblood of your team. They keep the gears turning, energy high, and fresh ideas flowing. Which means you need to figure out how to hire for the squishy stuff, and teach the rest … fast!

For us, that means building a high-quality internship program that fuels our Associate pipeline with the right talent. Whether you’re starting from scratch or revamping your current internship program, you’ve come to the right place. Want to build a dream team of entry-level hires from the ground up? This is where the magic happens ✨

Step 1: Aligning goals to drive buy-in

As with any new project or initiative, always start with why. Unpacking the underlying problem is the only way you’ll build something that solves for it. Your why is essential for setting firm goals that keep you grounded and allow others to latch on. You’re only as strong as your momentum, and that momentum multiplies with the support of strong leaders and participants. Find common ground and frame your goals in the context of theirs. It’s your job to create clear goal alignment that people are excited to support.

Here’s a couple of our reasons why building a better internship program has a positive impact on the business. Remember, these are unique to our business goals. Yours should be too.

  • Our internship program is a big investment. Think: application review, interviewing, hiring, on-boarding, training, and ongoing support from our team. We also pay our Interns $12/hour, totaling about $3K/Intern and $54K/year (conservatively) in compensation alone. For all the time, resources, and dollars that fuel this program, we needed a stronger and more reliable return. For the business, our teams who support this program, and our interns who we want hired full-time. This meant restructuring the program to be a dependable, high-quality talent pipeline. Taking our internship investment and funneling it into long-term hiring strategy.
  • We move fast. When a new Associate requisition opens, we need the position filled tomorrow. Hiring from our internship program decreases our time to fill by 500% and cuts onboarding by 50%. Getting our teams the talent they need quickly while allowing us to redirect our time on more demanding roles. 
  • We need a mindset. We believe in a holistic approach to digital marketing that’s rooted in big data. The tools will always change, we can teach tools. What we need is a shared vision in the future of digital marketing and the desire to run in this direction. What better place to start? (It works!! After our program revamp, 100% of Interns were supporting data strategy efforts.)

Step 2: Structuring your internship program

In total, we made 12 Associate hires in the first four years of running our internship program. That’s 15% of all Associate hires from 2015 through 2018. Not bad, but not a trusted pipeline by any means. When looking at the structure of our previous internship program, it wasn’t rooted in building Associates. Our Interns want to be hired full-time and we always strive to promote from within. So what’s with the disconnect? Who does this program serve if we can’t depend on hiring our interns as Associates?

We knew we needed a revamp. We started with our dream Associate hire, then wove this persona through our program structure and in to our application process. So far this year, we’ve hired 50% of all Associate hires from our internship program. Here’s some of what helped us get there:

  • Goal setting: We started with our forecasted Associate needs for 2019, then used this projection to inform our investment. How many Interns need to convert to Associates to make the investment worth it? How does this influence the size of each internship cohort? Based on this data, we set an aggressive goal to hire 75% of our projected Associate hires from this program. By setting clear goals and defining how this program supports our business, we met 40% of our 2019 goal by mid-April — still with two more internship cohorts ahead of us this year.
  • Application process: Vetting for initiative and values alignment is too murky when all you have is a resume. Which means you’re missing an entire pool of qualified candidates who have hustle, heart, and are eager to turn both into a line on their resume. Resumes can also translate diverse experience as “not qualified”. Interns don’t always have a resume full of relevant work experience, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have the skills and knowledge to be successful. In many cases, they just haven’t had the opportunity yet! You know, the whole chicken before the egg thing …

By baking a Discovery Exercise into our application process we’re now able to evaluate applicants based on their ability to think, ask questions, and problem solve in the context of our internship. We saw a drastic increase in quality and steep decrease in applications. Both resulting in a tighter pipeline filled with highly qualified candidates. This shift drove a 700% increase in our conversation rate, jumping from 3.5% to 25% of all applicants hired in Spring 2019. 

  • Program structure: In shaping the structure of this program, we started with our end goal of hiring interns as Associates and worked backwards. We built two internship program ‘tracks’ to reflect the hiring needs of SEO, PPC, and Analytics. Over the course of this internship, our interns act as “Junior Associates” supporting real client deliverables and running head first towards our Associate-level roles. Here’s the structure that carries our Interns to Associates:
    • Week 1-2: Seer & Skills Training
    • Week 3-4: Client Team Intro, Shadowing & Training
    • Week 5-11: Experiential Learning & Ownership of Client Deliverables
    • Week 12: Wrap Up & Demo Day

Step 3: Setting expectations

When rolling out organizational change, setting clear and concise expectations is essential. Your team needs a strong understanding of what to expect, how to best prepare, and their level of involvement. Your upcoming cohort of Interns will need the same. 

Uncertainty causes confusion, fear of change, and delayed adoption. The more confidence you can impart in all who touch this program, the better. Put yourself in the shoes of the user, anticipate questions, and answer them. Give each team something to hold, reference, and return to when they’re feeling lost. This will help keep expectations aligned and provide a sense of security of the course of the internship. 

We created three comprehensive guides for our internship program. Each serving their own unique purpose in setting clear expectations. Check them out below and feel free to re-purpose in the context of your own internship program.

  • Team Guide: Each team that has an intern joining their account receives this guide. It gives an overview of the program and outlines each team member’s role in supporting its success.
  • Feedback Guide: Providing reportable feedback is crucial to the success of our interns and our ability to hire Associates directly from our internship program. This feedback enables us to track progress and will influence future hiring decisions. This guide covers each team member’s role in supporting our feedback loop for Interns. The platform we use is Small Improvements.
  • Intern Guide: This guide is given to each intern after we’ve received their signed offer letter. It welcomes them to the team while providing a clear outline on what’s to come.

Step 4: Track what’s working & what’s not

With so many changes underway, some things won’t pan out as expected. You’ll want quantitative and qualitative feedback from both interns and those supporting the program. Trackable metrics provide data to trend over time, paired with greater context to better unpack what’s happening and why. Leverage both together to drive conversation, change, and learning opportunities where applicable.

For interns, we had regular People Team check-ins during Weeks 5 and 10 of their internships. Interns completed our Intern Checkpoint Survey beforehand, then we analyzed the data and came prepared to dive into our findings as a group. Here’s some of what we found:

  • What did we find? In Week 5, we learned that our interns were a bit lost in their journey from intern to Associate. Each intern was eager to grow into this position, but didn’t see a clear path ahead and worried that they might not make the leap. Though we provided an expectations doc up front, it was messy, complex, and lost among all the other things. 
  • What did we do? We created an expectations deck specifically for our interns. Want to become an Associate? Here’s what Associate-level performance looks like across hard/soft skills, initiative, and ETHIC. We created a workbook alongside, encouraging Interns to align their work to each performance anchor. This gave them something tangible to run towards, and they ran!
  • What was the impact? This was huge for the success of our program, the interns involved, and future Interns to come. By the end of Week 12, 75% of our Interns met Associate performance expectations; we hired 3 full-time Associates, and 1 boomerang Intern.

For our internal teams, we conducted one Internship Experience Survey at the end of week 12. We are now analyzing this data to understand areas for improvement as we gear up for our summer internship cohort. We’ll use these insights to better support the teams that support our internship program.

Step 5: Living through Kaizen

Kaizen is a huge part of our culture at Seer. The practice of continuous improvement is something we live through in our client work, internal ops, and individual development. Your internship program is living, breathing, and always evolving. This revamp was a big undertaking, with the opportunity for bigger impact, and we saw some really great wins. With that, we also ran into walls, things broke, and there’s still lots to improve. With change comes… more change! (Surprise!!) 

So here’s a couple improvements we’re working through in our second iteration. Knowing and embracing that each internship cycle will bring new opportunities for growth. Then welcoming the opportunity to be better, and doing something about it.

  • Stronger support: We have an Intern Resource Group underway. This will give interns a greater support system outside of their client team for questions, advice, coffee dates, all the things.
  • Stronger feedback: We want to make hires based on performance evaluations and feedback (read: data). Our feedback isn’t tight enough today, but we’ve got greater education in the works.

So, what does this mean for you?

Hopefully our journey serves as inspiration to get started on your own. Leverage our wins and to shed light on the impact your team could see from creating an internship program of your own. Keeping in mind that what we’ve built may be quite different from what serves your team, and that’s okay. Make it yours!

We hope you’re able to learn from our challenges and skip right over them. Running head first into new and exciting challenges of your own. Your team, business, and work is evolving every single day. The processes you build to support each will need to do the same. Adopt a practice of Kaizen and watch how each pitfall begins to appear as an opportunity. This goes for so much more than your internship program. 

More than anything, we hope you’re able to use this. For your internship program or as inspiration for something completely different. Great ideas are worth sharing. Take our process, resources, ideas, challenges, wins, losses, and make them yours! We hope you build something remarkable.

Want to learn even more about Seer’s Internship Program? Better yet, want to throw your hat in the ring? Check out this overview of Seer’s Internship opportunities.