(Almost) Free Talent: Building a Next-Generation Workforce with Internships

Everything old is new again. Today, we are so excited that apprenticeship has made a strong comeback as a hands-on learning experience for all types of jobs. In fact, we join Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff in his “moonshot goal to create 5 million apprenticeships in the next five years.” Since 2015, we have had our own rallying cry — talent is the great multiplier for the social sector, and it is just as important for us to “grow our own” talent as it is in the technology sector. This week, we’d like to discuss one of our best strategies for nurturing talent all nonprofits should be doing today — the value of internships and job shadowing.

When I was 16, I started as a law clerk for the City of Garland, Texas, interacting with City staff and elected officials. It was an eye-opening experience. Although at first I was running errands, getting coffee, answering phone calls from concerned citizens (this was before email), and typing, I grew into the role and was soon able to attend court proceedings, business lunches and legal training sessions. I also had to wear business clothes and learned a lot about office etiquette. I look back on that experience and have immense gratitude for all I learned and the people who took time to teach me. Like so many others who have benefited from internships, I consider that early professional experience a critical stepping stone in my educational pursuits and future career.

If talent is the great multiplier for the social sector, experience is the currency that drives many high school, college and graduate students to seek internships. In an academic environment that currently focuses on comprehension, internships can provide a hands-on experience and produce hard and soft skills. In fact, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, among 2013 graduates who had applied for a job, 63.1 percent of paid interns received at least one job offer and the median starting salary ($51,930) was significantly higher than those without the experience. It used to be that college was the ticket to a good job; now college plus internships are a better bet. So, how can the social sector increase the number of students with internships as well as capitalize on this important trend and provide a meaningful experience, which hopefully will lead to employment in the sector?

Applicants: Social sector organizations can and should focus on both undergraduates and graduate students, but may also benefit from hiring high school students (like I was!). Start first with a list of short-term projects needing to be accomplished, and then gear the job description to the level of candidate needed.

Timeline: For summer internships, great candidates start looking four to six months prior to the summer break. Some candidates take internships during the school year and often receive credit for their internship. Many college and universities allow job postings for students and alumni year-round, so you can post your ad whenever you are ready. The sooner you post, the better the candidate pool. For an intern this summer, start now!

Experience: The best jobs provide a range of experiences — job shadowing, group projects and individual short-term projects (which gives the intern a completed project to show future employers). You can add clerical tasks, but the internship should also focus on projects that require critical thinking skills, such as social media audits, feasibility of social enterprise ideas, or market research.

Plan: Pick two to three local universities and/or community colleges that have public affairs, social work/education/arts, or business administration programs and connect with their career services centers online. Most likely, with just a job posting (we have shared ours as a starting point) and contact information, they will post the position for you, and you should begin to receive candidates. You can also post online at a number of resources, including Internships and Experience. We recommend a brief phone/Skype interview to test both capability and compatibility. Then, conduct team in-person interviews with the top two to three candidates. Remember, these interviews are also a learning experience for the candidates, so, when possible, provide feedback to both successful and unsuccessful candidates.

Supervision: Internships can also provide supervision experience with minimal risk to your organization’s rising stars. Give the task of leading the internship hiring process to an employee with potential. These individuals are more likely to have more time to supervise and will be able to share their own experiences of learning the ropes with interns.

Bonus: We love community programs that also source and provide interns to local nonprofits. In communities across the country, ExxonMobil has been providing a Summer Jobs Program to match the best and brightest from colleges with deserving nonprofits. You may want to ask your local Volunteer Center to see if a program like this exists in your community.

What if the social sector’s “moonshot goal” was for every nonprofit to hire one intern each year? We would TRIPLE the number of students with internships, which would result in a stronger workforce and many more recent graduates coming to and staying with the social sector. An invaluable experience for them will add energy and millennial know-how to your mission. It is a win-win that will have payoffs for all those involved. We’d love to hear about what learning experiences you’ve offered interns and how they have enriched your organization.