Updating Results

How to create a leading (and legal!) internship program

Ian Cooper

Career Counsellor
We’ve already gone through the basics of what you need to do to build a strong internship program. Taking it to the next level, though — creating a program that really stands out from the crowd — is largely a matter of trust.

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If you’re looking to cultivate a strong, healthy talent pipeline for your business, establishing an internship program can be a great investment. 

You’ll give students an opportunity to learn about your company and your industry. You’ll also help them develop practical job skills that will make them better able to contribute to the workforce in a full-time position. 

Plus, you’ll be putting your firm in a position to identify and train high-quality candidates while they’re still in studying. This will help you get ahead of the curve on hiring and make sure that you’ve got a consistent flow of new recruits who are able to come in and make an impact right away, should you choose to offer them a job after graduation.

However, if you want to attract good candidates, you need to create a compelling internship experience. Long gone are the days when interns were satisfied with making coffee, sending faxes, and collating photocopies. 

Today, if you want to compete with the top players in your sector, you have to offer your interns real value. Typically, this means a heavy emphasis on education and skills training, the opportunity to take on meaningful projects, and mentors who can help guide each intern through their placement experience.

In other words, you’ll need to do more than just bring aboard a handful of enterprising third-year students to spend a few months doing work the rest of your team would rather avoid. Take the time to set up a thoughtful, genuinely educational program, though, and you’ll reap tangible benefits.

Here are some of the factors you should consider when getting started.

Think of an internship program as a long-term job interview

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Typically, even the most robust job interview processes still result in both the employer and the employee rolling the dice. After all, how can anyone really know if a new hire is going to be a good fit in a particular role until they’ve actually spent time in the role?

Almost anyone who has worked in hiring would be able to share a story or two about landing their dream candidate…only to find that the dream faded quickly in the light of day. After all, the skills that make someone effective in an interview are not necessarily the same as those that will lead to strong long-term performance on the job.

However, creating an internship program can give you a way to assess potential graduate candidates much more holistically. Instead of relying on testing, instinct, and a fw high-pressure conversations, you’ll be able to spend weeks or months getting to know each intern’s strengths, weaknesses, passions, and challenges. 

Even more important, you’ll be able to see how a given intern fits into your overall organization. After all, in the long run, who would you rather hire: a candidate with slightly better hard skills, but a lesser aptitude for getting along with the rest of your team? Or a candidate who may take a little longer to learn things, but also has a knack for boosting morale and team cohesion?

More often than not, you’d probably choose the second candidate, right? But that’s the sort of thing that can be especially difficult to measure during a typical hiring process. 

With an internship program, though, you’ll get to see how each intern integrates into your team and how they evolve over time. If and when you are deciding whether to offer an intern a permanent role, you’ll have much more data to go on when making the final call. 

This goes both ways, too. Most graduates jump into a new job and hope for the best. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But an intern who is considering a full-time offer with the same firm can make their decision with a higher degree of confidence. They’ll likely be continuing to work with people they already know, in a role that they have already been exposed to. Assuming they enjoyed the internship, that’s most likely an easy yes and an auspicious beginning to their career.

A final thought here: an internship program can benefit your current employees as well. Why? Because it gives them the opportunity to serve as mentors.

Not only can mentorship be a genuinely rewarding experience on its own, but teaching is a great way to learn. Faced with the need to help an intern learn about what they do, your current team members may find themselves thinking about their own jobs in new ways. This can spark innovation or bring a fresh sense of energy into the workplace.

Paid or unpaid: navigating the Fair Work Act

Now that we’ve got you excited about setting up your internship program, let’s talk about how to make sure that you do so in a fair, appropriate, and most of all legal way. You’ll need to be familiar with how to navigate employment law — and if you’re based in Australia like we are, that means the Fair Work Act.

Here are the basics to be aware of.

Are you offering a paid or an unpaid internship?

This is a big question. Are you going to pay your interns, or not?

The Fair Work Act establishes strict guidelines regulating compensation for interns. You’ll need to be sure that you abide by these guidelines fully, or risk running afoul of the law. 

While it might be tempting to try and limit your costs by opting to offer unpaid internships, you’ll often be setting yourself up for trouble. Legally, you can only bring on volunteer interns under a few specific sets of circumstances.

Beyond the details of the law (which we’ll explore more in a moment), there is also the question of appealing to program candidates. If you’re not paying and your competitors are, who is going to have more high-quality intern applicants? 

Consider, too, that if you choose not to pay your interns, you may also be further limiting your talent pool to only candidates who can afford to accept a non-paying position. As most students need to work in order to support themselves, you’d be missing out on getting to know a big portion of your future hiring options. 

When can an internship be unpaid?

The Fair Work Act lays out a litmus test for when an internship program can be unpaid. Per the Fair Work Ombudsman:

Unpaid work experience or internships can be okay if:

  1. They're a student or vocational placement, or
  2. There's no employment relationship.

In other words, if students are receiving academic credit for their internship or are there strictly to learn, observe, and develop their skills — not do actual work — it is probably okay not to pay them.

Now, a student placement like the one mentioned above must meet specific guidelines in order to remain legally unpaid. 

  1. You as the employer must be bringing on a student in order to allow them to meet the academic requirements of a course.
  2. Nothing in the student’s contract can entitle them to receive payment.
  3. The placement must be a required piece of the student’s course.
  4. The student’s course must be offered by an accredited academic institution.

If you can check all four boxes, then you don’t have to pay a student intern. Again, though, we want to reiterate that by doing so, you’ll be putting yourself at a competitive disadvantage.

Unpaid internships are unappealing not only to students (even those who can afford to take them) but increasingly, to universities as well — a growing number of which are refusing to promote unpaid internships to their student bodies at all. Plus, most heavyweight companies pay — some quite well. 

Unless you’ve got a really good reason not to, you should probably break out the chequebook. Remember, you’re building a hiring pipeline here. 

When does an internship need to be paid — and how much?

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Anytime your internship program does not meet the above standards laid out under the Fair Work Act — or you want to attract high-quality candidates — you need to pay. If your interns are doing actual work outside of the strict boundaries of student placements, for example, then you’ve got an employment relationship.

But how much should you pay? What’s the going rate for internship salaries among major employers?

In Australia, here’s what you can expect (if you’re elsewhere, your local rates may differ). Per Glassdoor:

  • Interns who are placed at one of the Big Four professional services firms average between $50,000 (PwC) and $60,000 (KPMG) a year, with Deloitte and EY falling in between. 
  • Meanwhile, interns at top tech companies make roughly $58,000 (Microsoft and Google) to $60,000 (Amazon). 
  • In banking, NAB pays an average of $55,000 while Commonwealth Bank pays closer to $57,000.

If you want to compete with the big players, you’ll need to offer similar salaries (prorated for the length of your internship program, of course) — or maybe even go above to make up for any disadvantage your firm may hold in the prestige game. As with most things, you get what you pay for. To bring in top candidates, you’ll need to spend top-of-market dollars.

And if you can’t match on salary, then you’ll need to get creative about what you can offer to make your internship opportunities stand out from the crowd. Take some time to think about what makes your company special — your culture, your core values, your great remote work policy? 

Make sure that whatever your answer is, you highlight that when recruiting and interviewing candidates.

What goes into designing a good internship program?

Now that we’ve covered the legal basics, let’s talk about what actually makes a strong internship program. What else do you need to think about if you want to attract great interns?

Decide when you are offering internships

First, you need to decide when you’re going to run your program. 

Now, unless you’re offering a placement that is integrated with a course a student is taking during the academic year, you’ll probably want to consider hosting interns during either summer or winter break. This is because during vacations from school, your interns won’t be juggling classwork on top of their internship duties, so they’ll be able to contribute more fully and get more out of the experience.

Most major employers run summer internships or vacationer programs. These tend to be about 10-12 weeks long.

Goldman Sachs, for example, gives interns the opportunity to get both training and real work experience through a placement that runs from the end of November to mid-February. Accenture’s summer program runs a little shorter, from early December through the end of January, while Amazon’s software engineering internship program likewise goes from December to February.

Winter internship programs are also popular and can sometimes be shorter. Kearney, for example, offers a 5-week winter placement. Blackstone, though, provides 8-10 week internships during either the winter or the summer.

However, you should also feel free to get creative. Especially if you’re looking for ways to compete with larger firms, think about building an internship program around a more flexible schedule. Talk to students for ideas on what may be appealing or what they find lacking in the traditional summer or winter approach. 

As always, moving against the herd can be a useful way to stand out.

Figure out what your interns will actually do

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If you’ve got all your Fair Work Act ducks in a row, then deciding what your interns should be doing is easy: real work! The best way for them to learn about what it’s like to work for your company or in your sector is to dive in and actually do it. That way, they know whether to continue down a particular career path after graduation.

Of course, this will also give you a clearer sense of which interns might be strong candidates for a full-time graduate job (after all, you’re conducting an extended job interview here). Think about what you need done by your entry-level employees and then ask your interns to take on those same challenges too.  

Taking this approach also means that you’ll be getting actual, productive work from your interns. Consider this another reason to make sure that you pay well, too, as higher-tier candidates will deliver more value on the job.

Set up an onboarding and training process

With any new employee, you need to provide a certain level of training. Even an experienced professional still needs to go through an onboarding process to learn how you do things and get acclimated.

This is doubly true for interns because they’re still just students. They likely have little to no work experience and no practical knowledge of how an office (whether in-person or remote) actually functions.

So you’ll want to make sure that your internship program begins with a thoughtful onboarding module. No, your interns may not need to know everything that a full-time employee does — but if you want them to be able to actually contribute to your business, you need to give them the tools for success. 

Think about your current new hire process:

  • What parts are essential for anyone operating in your organization? 
  • What parts only matter for someone who is going to be there long-term or is stepping into a specific role? 

Then think about what tasks you want your interns to be able to accomplish:

  • How much training does that require?
  • Does it need to be upfront or does it make more sense to do it with a mentor over the length of the program? 

Use those questions as an overall framework to build out your onboarding for interns.

Save money by automating

Now, one way you can make a more efficient use of resources is to automate your onboarding process as much as possible. You can do a great deal of training using videos or online presentations (try something like Vimeo or Loom here). These can include everything from a straight-to-the-camera talk to a prerecorded walkthrough where you take the viewer through a specific task by sharing your screen.

This kind of training may cost some time and effort upfront. Once you’ve got it, though, it’s infinitely scalable. Whether you’re onboarding one new intern (or team member) or 100, you can use the same pipeline at little to no additional cost.

Don’t forget about mentorship, either

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In addition to your formal onboarding process, you’ll want to offer your interns something that will be more valuable in the long run — mentorship. Working with a mentor — either one on one or in a group — will give your interns the opportunity to learn not just how a job sounds on paper, but how to really dig into a role over time. 

We’ll talk more about this below, but a compelling internship experience typically involves giving your interns the chance to demonstrate some real autonomy — to take on a genuinely interesting assignment and do their best to tackle it. However, this works best when paired with a strong mentorship element.

Essentially, you want to create a situation where your interns have clear direction and someone on your team they can go to for guidance, as well as a long leash to problem-solve and take initiative on their own.

So think about who on your team can mentor your interns. Do you have time? Do you have senior employees who would enjoy the chance to share some of their years of experience with a new generation?

Make sure you’re complying with WHS regulations

We’ve already covered what the Fair Work Act says on payment but remember: all workplace health and safety regulations (WHS) also apply to interns. 

Your HR team should already be in charge of monitoring compliance here. WHS rules cover everything from exposure to physical or environmental dangers to workplace violence and sexual harassment. Exact regulations can vary slightly state by state, so make sure that you’re following your specific local guidelines.

When your interns are on the job, their safety is your responsibility.

When you’re ready to start recruiting, here’s how to do it

Recruiting students is never easy. You’re facing a crowded market, with hundreds of top firms and thousands of smaller ones all vying for the attention of top candidates. 

Typically, in order to stand out, you’ll need to offer at least one of these three things:

  • Top of market pay
  • A really compelling brand
  • An extraordinary internship experience

You’ll also need to:

  • Define your ideal intern candidate
  • Create an appealing job posting that speaks to that candidate

Now, we’ve already talked about pay several times, so let's focus on the rest of this list.

Build a compelling employer brand

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Obviously, a strong employer brand is not something you can establish overnight. Especially for a smaller or mid-sized firm (and if you’re reading this guide, your company probably falls into one of those two categories), you’re not going to be able to create the same brand awareness as the major players in your sector.

The good news is — that’s okay! You don’t need to be the next Google (or even the next Canva). What you do need is a great reputation on university campuses — and that’s a more manageable task.

In fact, Prosple can help you build that reputation. We’ll work with you to highlight your internship program to students across Australia and beyond during one of our virtual careers fairs, on our jobs boards, and through partnerships with dozens of leading Australian universities. 

You’ll also want to explore additional avenues to create a good reputation for your company. If you’re skilled at using social media (or have someone on your team who is), make sure your firm’s accounts are posting genuinely compelling — and if possible, funny — content on a regular basis. 

You can go deeper, too. Try interviewing current team members and asking them to provide honest feedback about their work experience and then sharing videos of those interviews on social media. You’ll give potential interns and new hires the opportunity to see why real people like working for your business and even get a sense of who their new potential co-workers could be.

Again, Prosple can help here. We post what we call Day in the Life Stories (see examples for BDO, Westpac, and Allens) on our employer pages, in which a current graduate employee takes our audience through a workday from start to finish. Students using our site tend to love this content because it’s not coming directly from you, but from someone just like them. 

Now, none of this will come together in a week (or even a month). But make a thoughtful, ongoing effort to raise your on-campus profile, and you’ll start to see results that pay off in the quality of your internship and graduate job candidates.

Go for an extraordinary internship experience

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We’ve already gone through the basics of what you need to do to build a strong internship program. Taking it to the next level, though — creating a program that really stands out from the crowd — is largely a matter of trust. 

Think of the internship experience as a spectrum. On one end, you have interns limited to menial duties like fetching coffee and making photocopies. This is fine for films, but not for serious companies who want to appeal to top talent.

On the other end, you have interns who are getting the chance to spread their professional wings and fly for the first time. This goes hand in hand with giving your interns real responsibility and the opportunity to make mistakes, fail, and figure out how to get the job done.

So ask yourself: how much trust and autonomy are you willing to extend to your interns? Ideally, figure out a way to give them a real project — something you’d ordinarily have your full-time team take on — and room to run with it. 

Allow your interns to feel like they’re on the front lines and they’ll most likely rise to the occasion — and then tell their friends about what a great experience they’re having working for your company. 

Look at your reputation starting to spread!

Create a strong position description

Next, let’s talk about your job listing. This is what you’ll use to appeal to potential interns on Prosple or another career site. A good listing is a key part of your overall employer brand and can help make or break the tone you want to set with candidates.

Now, like any good piece of marketing, you want to start by putting yourself in your audience’s shoes. Picture your ideal intern candidate — your avatar. Take the time to describe this person to yourself: their qualities, talents, skillset, and interests. 

More importantly, ask yourself: what are they looking for in a placement? Don’t be afraid to spend time on Reddit, TikTok, or Twitter looking for posts by college students sharing thoughts on internships. Do your market research and you’ll have a more specific sense of how to appeal to your avatar.

Remember, students aren’t signing up for internships because they want to help your company meet its quarterly earnings target. They’re doing it because they want to take the first step in their careers. So you need to focus on creating a job description that’s all about why your company is the perfect place for them to take that first step. What’s in it for them?

Here, you want to be authentic. Young people, especially those who have grown up on the internet, know when they’re being sold a bill of goods. 

So don’t sugarcoat or overpromise. Just be really honest about the pluses and minuses of what spending time working for your firm will look like. Take the time to share details about what your interns will actually be doing all day, not just boilerplate text about your “exciting opportunity for hard-working candidates.”

Paint a clear picture and you’ll appeal to students who will naturally fit within your frame.

Set up a screening process

We want to end with a brief note on screening candidates for your program.

Per the 2022 AAGE Employer Survey, you’ll need to get about 50 applications in order to bring on 1 intern you’re excited to hire. Now, this is a broad rule of thumb, not a hard calculus, but it's a good reminder that if you’re planning on onboarding several interns, you’ll need a way to sort through hundreds of candidates.

We’ve put together several articles on what tech you can use to make your overall hiring process easier.

What tech do employers use for their graduate recruitment?
What free tech options can you use for graduate recruiting?

These can help you set up a smoother system to screen, interview, and select candidates for both your internship program and full-time employment.

That’s a Wrap

Since you’ve made it to the end (high five!), let’s close out with a quick summary of what you should take away from reading. 

First, creating an internship program can give you a major leg up in recruiting. Do it right and you’ll get to work with talented students before they hit the job market so you can identify top prospects and make them a full-time offer early. 

Second, take the time to do things properly. Make sure that you abide by Fair Work Act and WHS regulations, pay your interns (seriously, just do it) and develop a genuinely compelling program that combines real work experience with skilled mentorship so that your interns learn, spread their wings, and come away wanting more.

Finally, don’t forget to start establishing a strong employer brand so that you’ll have an easier time attracting great intern candidates. Write a top-tier position description, start building a reputation on campus, and make sure you’re the kind of employer your interns can’t wait to brag to their friends about.

Good luck!

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