With internship programs being offered year-round, whether you are an apparel company planning to welcome your first group of interns or are thinking through ways to optimize your well-established program, this is a perfect time to solidify your process and procedures. As a veteran in the staffing industry — whose company has helped many organizations facilitate their own internship programs over the years — I am happy to share some perspectives with you that should help you “dress your programs” for optimal success.
When evaluating the benefits of an internship program, apparel companies need to consider a number of topics: What are our goals for the program? How do we attract quality candidates? How do we onboard and manage our interns? What do we want everyone to gain from this experience? And finally, how do we assess the quality and success of the experience — both for interns and the company itself — at program’s end?
Internship programs add value
Offering an internship program not only provides the next generation of workers (typically rising juniors and seniors in college) with their first exposure to a professional work environment; it can also be quite beneficial for your company. Intern programs create a pipeline for your future workforce — get early talent interested and involved today, and may spark a lifelong interest in the apparel industry. If these interns are recruited to your company after graduation, the solid foundation gained during their internship will lead to faster productivity and could increase retention rates.
Hosting an internship program will force your company to reevaluate how work gets done. Just as the best way to learn a subject is to teach it to others, the level of guidance involved in managing interns can reveal a great deal about your own management practices. The aspects of your business that turn out to be the most challenging to teach to these up-and-comers may deserve a second look on your part and oftentimes, interns can provide an innovative, fresh perspective.
Interns are also some of the most highly motivated workers who will ever walk through your doors. Can you remember how excited you were on your first day of work? These students are intensely interested in learning how the apparel business works from the ground up. Using their enthusiasm and drive is a privilege not to be wasted but to be harnessed to their benefit — and yours.
Finally, interns can provide you valuable “in-house” market research. You can gain information and real-world insights from those who might be in your target marketing audience. You can develop a greater understanding about how they shop and live and what their preferences are, which can help you develop and refine marketing strategies. They can also serve as eloquent brand ambassadors for your company — people who are likely to share their positive experience with their friends, family and colleagues.
Recruitment and onboarding: Finding the perfect fit
So how can you identify and attract the perfect internship candidates, particularly since they might not have much experience, and as rising juniors and seniors, are only just now taking the “meatier” courses? It’s best to look for intern candidates with the same qualities you would look for in full-time employees — evaluate their aptitude, energy and transferable skills (perhaps from prior retail or hospitality experience) as much as their demonstrable capabilities. You can also form strategic partnerships with career offices at colleges and universities that are well-known for curriculum in the areas that you intend to place interns. These institutions can funnel students within a particular major — such as fashion design or merchandising — toward your opportunities. Forging strong links with academia creates a perennial source of high-quality intern candidates for those companies that host these programs. Other avenues to leverage are social media, your careers website and websites that specialize in advertising internships.
Once a group of interns has been selected, proper onboarding is the next challenge. The first week spent within your organization is critical one, setting the tone for the rest of the program and providing the interns with their very first taste of how your company operates. Treating week one like a business orientation session is a wise idea. During this week, each intern should be introduced to the key players on your team. It can be very intimidating for a college student to initiate a conversation with a busy professional behind a desk, so facilitating those introductions is a must. Create opportunities, such as scheduled meetings or lunches, where your team and your new interns can introduce themselves, share information about their roles and responsibilities, and network. Taking these steps accelerates collaboration; when interns know whom to consult within your organization for more information and feel comfortable doing so, they can be self-sufficient and feel like they’re part of the team.
Intern management is often a great opportunity to provide staff at your company their first managerial experience. Each intern should be assigned a single manager who is ultimately responsible for overseeing their work. To support your managers, creating a guide outlining important management concepts (e.g. how to give constructive feedback), activities (e.g. scheduled one-one-one touching bases) and milestones (e.g. middle and/or end of internship evaluations) can be helpful to ensure everyone has the best possible experience.
Interns at apparel companies should be given meaningful, substantive work. An internship should not be (just) filing or data entry. If you fail to comprehensively engage their talents, they’ll leave with a negative impression. As a result, it is crucial to clearly outline responsibilities and projects prior to their arrival. Since some internship programs are held at the height of vacation season, make sure another colleague can step in and provide supervision in their absence.
Enhancing and evaluating the intern experience
With meaningful work established, it’s time to think about how to take the experience from good to great. One strategy is establishing a method, such as an online portal, for interns to communicate with each other. This generation is inherently social and giving them a way to connect helps avoid feelings of isolation, especially if they are the only ones in the department. Planning activities, such as a day of volunteering or a “field trip” to a sporting event, can deeply enrich the experience the students have and create more opportunities for them to bond and network with one another. At the conclusion of the internship, think about holding a portfolio presentation where interns can showcase their work to the organization—this works especially well if they were given a specific project or contributed to something graphic or visual.
Measuring the effectiveness of your internship program will help you evaluate what worked well and identify areas of improvement for next year. The questions should be relevant to your company’s specific program and the feedback collected should be studied closely. Surveys distributed to managers and interns will help to get a comprehensive understanding of everyone’s experience.
Don’t lose sight of compliance — interns should always be employees, either of your company directly, or of a workforce solutions company that helps design and manage your internship program. Interns are non-exempt, hourly workers who are eligible for overtime. They are not independent contractors.
Finally, you should be aware that staffing agencies often have the expertise to oversee a great deal of the administrative tasks associated with an internship program. They can provide guidance on program planning and design, develop branding and promotion, and manage applications. Additionally, they have the ability to match and coordinate interviews, extend offers to candidates and take care of onboarding. Furthermore, these agencies can ensure that payroll processing for interns occurs smoothly and according to federal and state regulations.
Ensuring a quality experience for the interns you bring on board can raise your profile amongst the next generation of apparel industry employees and consumers. Do your homework correctly and you’ll earn an “A” from students and managers alike.
Rebecca Cenni-Leventhal is founder and CEO of Atrium, which is focused on providing contingent workforce solutions for mid-size and Fortune 500 companies in nearly every industry.