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Cultivating inclusive early talent internships (+ 9 practical resources)

Cultivating inclusive early talent internships (+ 9 practical resources)

Early talent internships open doors to the world of work. But do they offer equal opportunities to new and soon-to-be grads from different demographics? Not always. Here’s how — and why — internships could offer more, to more people.

The purpose of early talent internships

Internships are nothing new — there’s evidence of interns and internships as far back as the 11th century! Viewing intern programs as a one-way flow of experience and education, from teacher to apprentice, is seriously outdated though. 

It’s not only outdated, it’s just plain wrong. Why? Because great early talent internships benefit the student and the business alike.

What good internships offer to early talent

Internships help young candidates gain experience and exposure in their chosen field, while also getting their foot in the door at your organization. After all, the next time an entry-level role comes up, you’re far more likely to consider a current or recent intern — someone with insight into how your organization operates — over someone completely new.

There’s a lot to be said for the networking opportunities grads or soon-to-be grads get from an internship, too. 

You may not have an open position for the long-term, but someone you know might. Recommendations and referrals go a really long way in establishing early talent career paths and building their workplace confidence.

What businesses stand to gain from early talent internships

We’ve spoken before about the challenges of attracting early talent: where do you look, how do you engage top talent, what’s the secret to retaining them once they are in?

Internship programs help resolve those challenges and are an excellent way to bring fresh perspectives and untapped potential into your teams. Employees brought in through internships are loyal, too.

According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, interns who transition into full-time contracts are far more likely to stick with a company than those hired through other channels.

  • In 2017, the one-year retention rate for former interns was 65.5%, as opposed to 46.2% for those without a prior internship. 
  • At the five-year mark, that difference remains roughly the same: there’s a 51.8% chance a former intern is still around…
  • … while those who weren’t interns are only 35.8% likely to remain.

Are early talent internships working optimally today?

There are definite signs of positive outcomes in the world of early talent internships. 

A study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that new grads who’d completed at least one early talent internship while studying were “significantly” more likely to get multiple job offers.

But we need to ask ourselves: are certain grads more likely to reach out for, and be accepted on to, internship programs? 

The answer to that is, sadly, ‘Yes’.

Discrimination and bias in early talent internships

The very way early talent internships are managed and recruited for makes them more beneficial for certain grads and soon-to-be grads.

Gender imbalance is still a huge issue in many working sectors, and that disparity trickles down to internship design and selection as well. Prominently, young women are more likely to take unpaid internships than men, starting them off on the back foot for their career. 

The same can be said for African-American, Hispanic-American, and Multi-racial American students across genders — all of whom are also more likely to take unpaid internships, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers

"Middle class graduates were more likely to be funded by parents, have savings and use personal connections to obtain internships.

Pay your interns (and pay them fairly)!

Lack of remuneration narrows the early talent pool for internships, no doubt about it. In the U.K. 70% of interns said their internship was unpaid. This alone filters out a significant number of would-be interns from all backgrounds. 

After all, no-one can’t eat experience and it’ll never pay the rent.

In the U.S., paid internships are on the up, but the $19.05 hourly rate is low enough that it can still make early talent internships cost-prohibitive for many or most. 

The opportunity cost of doing an internship is simply too high, as these numbers show. Why wouldn’t early talent from lower-economic backgrounds (whose parents can help support them through the scheme) take paid employment elsewhere, even if it doesn’t help advance their chosen career?

Exclusive early talent selection hurts the organization as well

Remember the business benefits of early talent internships? Fresh perspectives, untapped potential, increased loyalty? All of these can be further bolstered with inclusive internship recruitment.  

Hire interns who represent ‘more of the same’, and you’ll always struggle to be challenged and pushed forward by your younger workers. You’ll also never be an uptick in applications from diverse demographics either. 

It really is a continuous cycle that we all need to break.

How to plan, organize, and rollout inclusive early talent internships that benefit everyone

High-quality mentoring, challenging assignments, the provision of feedback, and management buy-in lead to more successful internship experiences. But you also need to get a diverse range of candidates up for consideration as well. 

To assist you in making this happen, we’ve collated a definitive resource list below.


Define your mission

Create a mission statement for your intern program. This is fundamental in defining who you are as a business, plus, it can be used to develop your recruitment strategy too. 

Think: how long will it last, who will be involved, what it will involve, why does it matter to us, what are our values, what does it mean for us to be inclusive, what do we stand to gain?

>> Here’s some further reading on writing mission statements.

Understand who you’re appealing to

Most early talent interns will be Generation Z. Do you know where to find them, how to engage with them, and what they are looking for from future job roles? Spoiler: diversity and inclusion is a big deal.

>> Here’s our ‘Ultimate Guide to Campus Recruiting’, providing a deep dive into on- and off-campus recruitment and how to win Gen Z over.

Consider the legal implications

Unpaid internships are legal. But you’ll be excluding a significant proportion of some very promising talent, as we mentioned before.

>> Do your research on the legalities surrounding paid and unpaid internships and what constitutes ‘fair’ reward. Then ask yourself: are we offering equitable compensation and opportunities to everyone who applies?

Ask if it be remote

Online training delivers real-world experience, virtually. Plus, we all know how smoothly businesses can operate now when the whole team is connected online.

There’s an added diversity benefit here as well: early talent interns can join from anywhere in the world, increasing your recruitment reach way beyond your local area.

>> Click here to learn more about virtual internship opportunities.


Remove bias from your selection process

Headstart’s innovative recruitment software uses socioeconomic background data to level the playing field for all candidates. This means interns are scored on their true fit against your program, highlighting those with the most potential to succeed.

>> Book your Headstart demo right here.


Set learning goals

Great internships are a two-way street. The business needs to appreciate all they can learn from early talent interns, plus what the intern seeks to gain from their time in the team.

Interns learn very little from making coffee and stapling documents together, let’s be honest. Be adventurous in your learning goals instead and you’ll all reap the benefits.

>> This comprehensive guide offers sample learning goals to inspire you. But we’d challenge you to take it one step further and draw up some learning goals for yourself, as well. What blind spots do you want to fill in?

Assign each intern a mentor

Some early talent interns will naturally be more forthcoming and go-getting than others. That may be on account of their background, previous workplace experiences, or just personality differences! 

Mentors help get the most from interns, while also offering a friendly face to say hello to. Make sure the mentor is fully briefed on your internship mission statement and learning goals for both parties too.

>> Should you let mentors choose their mentees? Actually, we’d argue that hiring managers or HR should do the pairing up. Read our blog post, ‘Avoiding “Like Me” Bias In Early Talent Mentorship’ to find out why.


Conduct a mid-internship review

Even the best of plans can sometimes get waylaid, so protect time to check in with your interns mid-program. How are they doing versus their learning goals? Do they have any questions? Are they facing any unexpected challenges?

Keep their conversations totally confidential, then if there’s anything negative about the experience you can seek to resolve it on the intern’s behalf.

>> This template is a good starting point for both mid-internship reviews and exit interviews too.

Assess the immediate impact

It’s important to track an intern’s journey within your organization. That way, your approach can be reviewed and revisited if needed. 

To what extent were the learning goals achieved by the program’s end? Again, make sure you capture the experience and feedback of every intern — not just the ones who speak the loudest.

>> There’s also significant scope for positive branding off the back of successful early talent internships, like this example from Thomson Reuters. 

Ready to get more from early talent internships?

Your organization has probably been running internships for years… but when was the last time you took a step back and assessed how effective, and inclusive, your program actually is?

Nurturing early talent is something we’re all responsible for. And, right now, our internships could definitely be doing more. Are you onboard?

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