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HRD Insight: GL Hearn's Susan Wright on graduate intern schemes

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15th Jan 2013
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The role of the business community in helping to develop new talent is becoming an increasingly topical issue. 

The economic climate has created an environment in which graduates are now struggling to find jobs that only a few years earlier would have been readily available.   It is clear that these days experience counts, which places the onus on business to play its part in boosting employment in this area. As head of HR at property consultancy, GL Hearn, I know first-hand how difficult it can be to manage the needs of existing staff while dedicating additional resources to taking on new talent.   But we have had much more notable success with our undergraduate work placement programme since 2010 when we sat down and evaluated exactly what we might best be able to offer students.   The success of this scheme led us to consider how we could develop it further in order to both benefit the business and also assist young graduates in gaining valuable experience in the corporate world.   As a result, we took the decision earlier this year to implement a graduate internship programme. Recognising that it would be a big commitment, we set about establishing a framework for the initiative that the team would be able to sustain.   It was considered feasible for a maximum of two interns to work in the planning department for a three-month period, with each individual undertaking research for the team on current and potential future projects. Research is a key element of our work, with both junior and senior members of staff carrying it out on a daily basis for a range of ‘live’ and prospective projects.  Structure and documentation  Therefore, such activity provides graduates fresh from university with an opportunity to demonstrate their acumen and get a feel for the type of work that a planning department undertakes, while also freeing up permanent employees’ time to focus on other areas.   When setting up the internship programme, we were keen to devise measurable objectives and tasks that would enable participants to add tangible skills to their CV. Research lends itself to this goal as the team not only fully briefs the intern on their assigned task, but also provides feedback on the quality and results of the work produced.   We’re all familiar with the headlines about today’s graduates not being able to do even simple tasks such as writing emails and letters effectively, and so the office environment in and of itself provides the interns with invaluable experience.   Employers are all too aware of the challenges that university leavers face when going from the unstructured world of academia into a demanding workplace. Intern programmes such as ours are intended to help them make the transition without too much detriment to the bottom line.   From our point of view, interns really do bring something fresh and exciting to the team. Wide-eyed and enthusiastic, they are keen to learn new skills and eager to impress with ideas and opinions. Yes, this enthusiasm may sometimes need toning down, but it is infectious and has a noticeably positive effect on the team.   Before recruiting our first interns in May, we put in place both a structure and documentation system to enable us, and the interns themselves, to monitor their progress and identify any areas that needed to be improved upon.   Once this system was in-place, we advertised the two intern positions on our website and contacted higher education institutions that ran specialised planning programmes, such as Reading University.   The internships last for a minimum period of three months and I spend time with the new recruits initially, before placing them with a relevant team. During this time, we’ll discuss what they hope to get from the experience, their expectations, as well as what we expect from them.  Learning curve  From an HR perspective, this ‘briefing’ period is worthwhile as it helps to set the tone for the internship, and provides me with an opportunity to outline what we can do for them. In addition to the work-related elements, we offer practical support in CV-writing and filling in job applications, while also encouraging them to apply for jobs while on the programme.     Creating a scheme that is robust and sustainable is essential, but quite challenging. Given the tough economic climate, there is a real danger that employers unwittingly exploit interns and use them as ‘cheap labour’ without giving any thought to their development.   Our structured programme, complete with documentation, goes some way to trying to tackle this situation, as does paying participants’ expenses.   However, it is essential to set boundaries internally to ensure that the interns’ workload is not too high and that the tasks they are assigned are varied and engaging so that their experience is a positive one.   Nonetheless, it has been a learning process to understand the level of resource required to run such a scheme and to know our limitations. Gaining the backing of the whole company rather than just the HR department was vital in ensuring that we delivered on our promises.   Overseeing an intern can end up being viewed as just another ‘to do’ on staff members’ lists.   As a result, gaining a commitment from them for the outset that they would participate over the lifetime of the programme was critical to success. Good and consistent communication, particularly with the interns’ managers, was also important.  Managing expectations  Because the programme is relatively new, however, the number of applications can peak and trough. We hope that this situation will stabilise over the next year and that a higher number of applicants will allow for a continuous flow of interns across all departments.   This scenario should have a positive affect all-round as staff will be able to plan the interns’ workload more effectively, which will, in turn, equip them with more skills.     We have already taken on one of our interns on a permanent basis but, from a company perspective, it is not financially viable to hire everyone.   Therefore, managing people’s expectations before and during the programme is a key consideration. We’ve made it a priority from the outset to communicate the scope of the initiative as well as realistic outcomes, so that everyone knows what to expect.   My top five tips for employers hoping to start their own internship programme are:  

  1. View it as an opportunity to provide sought-after experience to talented graduates
  2. Take a mid- to long-term perspective: if interns enjoy the programme, they are likely to come back to you in future, which means that you can start constructing a potential talent pipeline
  3. Ensure that the scheme is structured properly and that documentation processes are in place in order to provide both interns and staff with adequate support
  4. Don’t be afraid to make changes to the programme as it develops to ensure that it suits the needs of the company and its interns
  5. Graduates fresh out of university are enthusiastic and eager to learn, so be sure to harness this vitality at every stage.

  We have been astounded at how rewarding our scheme has been for existing staff as graduates are often ‘wide-eyed’ and rearing to go, which are infectious traits. An extra pair of hands also undoubtedly helps the department concerned and provides the team with new skills.   For the interns, on the other hand, their chances of entering permanent employment are greatly increased. With four of our graduates now in full-time employment, we know that we have hit upon a winning formula, upon which we can build for the future. 

Susan Wright is head of HR at property consultancy, GL Hearn.

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