How to Create a Successful Internship Program

Tips to Benefit Both Interns and Employers
In the occupational and environmental health and safety sector, many companies have found that internships are a win-win proposition for both themselves and their interns. The primary benefit of internships for employers is that they build a steady stream of well-prepared candidates for OEHS positions. During the internship program, employers have a chance to fully vet candidates and, consequently, improve the quality of hires. Many OEHS employers train students in their processes and methods, thereby decreasing onboarding time in the future. During the program, employers gain eager and energetic professionals who bring new concepts, thoughts, and ideas to the OEHS department. More altruistically, internships foster a new generation of OEHS professionals, thereby helping promote and sustain the profession.

The benefits for OEHS interns are many. First and foremost, the internship gives them a chance to apply skills and knowledge in a practical manner. Most students have not had the opportunity to gain hands-on experience. In an internship program, students don their work clothes and personal protective equipment to work in the field while completing their academic projects. Students who can work with employees on air monitoring, enter data into a database, give a presentation, and express themselves in front of managers will be better prepared for future employment than those who did not have such experiences. Not only do the interns advance their ability to apply skills, but, through practical experience, they also have the chance to determine if OEHS is the best career choice for them.  AIHA’s research on the preparedness of recent graduates for entry-level OEHS positions supports the need for internships in the profession. Hiring managers surveyed observed that recent graduates are not well prepared to apply knowledge in a practical way. Professors surveyed also noted the need for practical experience, stating that once the basic knowledge has been learned, the application of knowledge is best provided by on-the-job training.  While many companies have well-established internship programs, others may see the benefit of creating an internship program and wonder how to do so. Here are a few tips from OEHS employers about how to create a successful internship program. 
MARY ELLEN BRENNAN, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, is founder of MEBrennan Consulting. She can be reached via email. FRANKY SPANGLER, PHR, SHRM-SCP, is AIHA’s director of Human Resources. She can be reached via email.

RESOURCES National Association of Colleges and Employers: 2018 Internship & Co-op Survey Report: Executive Summary (PDF, May 2018). U.S. Department of Labor: Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (January 2018). U.S. Department of Labor: Get the Facts on Misclassification Under the Fair Labor Standards Act (PDF).
According to Nancy M. McClellan, MPH, CIH, CHMM, CEO and principal consultant of Occupational Health Management, PLLC, “forward planning is critical for the interns to get as much as possible out of the program.” McClellan uses a spreadsheet to allocate the interns’ hours, asking each manager involved to complete entries about the project assignment and the number of hours required. The allocation ensures that the intern does not receive too many or too few assignments. Managers are required to make a commitment to mentor the intern through all phases of their project. Further, the allocation helps the company ensure that assignments are balanced among the environmental, occupational health, and safety disciplines. If an intern has a requirement to submit a poster or other deliverable upon returning to school, the allocation takes that into account.  A ground rule is that employers must specify which projects interns will work on before the internship starts. However, if projects are well defined, it is possible for employers to supplement them with other work to broaden the interns’ experience. CHOOSE AND MANAGE INTERNS WITH CARE It is critical to interview internship candidates via the company’s usual recruiting practices. Russell D. Hayward, CIH, managing director of Scientific and Technical Initiatives at AIHA, says that it is a best practice to select candidates from applicants and referrals to ensure that they are a good fit for the company culture and scope of the internship program.  It is equally important to be clear with candidates about the internship’s activities, from project details to expectations for routine work. A manager or other senior staff member should be assigned to the intern for regular check-ins and to help with logistics such as travel to other sites, if necessary. The human resources department should play a key role in supporting the internship program. HR should also play a role during the selection process. The department can offer advice on details like schools to target and specific criteria relevant to the internship—areas like GPA requirements, year in school, majors, and so on. HR can also assist with coordinating the issuing of offers and planning and conducting orientations. For internship programs with multiple interns, HR might help plan welcoming and team-building events for the participants.  ACQUIRE THE NECESSARY RESOURCES Hayward points out that implementing an internship program requires significant work and energy from those involved and is not a decision to be taken lightly. A successful internship program requires financial and other, less measurable resources. Companies should budget for a reasonable wage to be paid to interns. In addition to wages, companies should budget for the travel expenses necessary for interns to visit and work at other job sites, if applicable. Beyond the hard costs, companies should consider soft costs such as the time required from management to plan and implement the internship program. To secure these resources, companies must seek and gain support from upper management, as well as buy-in from the industrial hygiene or OEHS team.
The retention rate for intern hires after one year is 70.6 percent, compared with 46.3 percent for those with no internship or co-op experience.
KEEP AN EYE ON THE LEGAL SIDE Traditionally, businesses have thought of internships as unpaid labor to add to the work force. This approach allowed the business to train future workers and the intern to gain valuable experience. In recent years, the U.S. Department of Labor has cracked down on unpaid internships. For the most part, only the government or nonprofits may establish unpaid internships, and those internships must be, primarily, for the benefit of the intern, not the organization. For an intern to be unpaid, the intern must be the primary beneficiary of the relationship as defined by the “primary beneficiary test” established in DOL’s Fact Sheet #71. Some companies will try to circumvent the employee versus intern debate altogether and classify the individuals as contractors. This is especially dangerous to do. Misclassifying an employee (or intern) as an independent contractor may have a huge financial impact on the business via fines, fees, and back wages. SELLING THE IDEA OF AN INTERNSHIP PROGRAM The 2018 Internship & Co-Op Survey Report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that the retention rate for intern hires after one year is 70.6 percent, compared with 46.3 percent for those with no internship or co-op experience. When approaching your HR or executive department about setting up an internship program, be sure to discuss the many organizational benefits of the program. Benefits such as building a pipeline of future employees; establishing relationships with local universities, colleges, professors, and departments; gaining brand advocates; and having better-trained employees earlier in their careers are all areas that ultimately boost the bottom line of a business.  GIVING BACK TO THE PROFESSION Internship programs can help build a steady stream of well-prepared OEHS talent for a company. They also help OEHS students gain practical experience that may be missing from their academic experience. Internship programs can be a great way to give back to the profession by helping foster the next generation of IH and OEHS professionals. 
Use AIHA’s CareerAdvantage to Reach Internship Candidates
Employers seeking interns can post an opening for free for 30 days on AIHA’s job board, CareerAdvantage. Registering and posting an internship is simple, and site support is available. Visit CareerAdvantage