Can an internship program benefit to your IT shop? While it’s certainly a bit of work to set up a successful internship program, most companies I speak with find they get as much, or more value out of the program than the program’s participants.

For the unfamiliar, an internship program hires students, either at the undergraduate or graduate level, for a fixed duration, usually the annual summer break, although fall and winter internship programs are growing in popularity. In the technology field, these interns are usually paid, and there’s an assumption that successful interns will be offered a job at the company. Most interns are in the penultimate year of their studies and will be entering the job market; however, there’s no rule preventing you from hiring younger students. Your humble author participated in an internship program as a wet-behind-the-ears freshman in college.

Why hire interns?

Hiring a cadre of young people with no professional experience and limited academic exposure might seem like a daunting prospect at best, and a recipe for disaster at worst; however, there are multiple benefits to getting some fresh faces into your team. We’ve all read about the changing workforce and those pesky millennials and their unconventional habits, and bringing on interns allows you to actually work with younger people and experience their work style firsthand. You’ll likely be surprised that much of what you’ve read is untrue or over-hyped, and you may even find that some of the work styles of the youngest work-age generation can be applied to your broader organization.

SEE: IT jobs 2018: Hiring priorities, growth areas, and strategies to fill open roles (Tech Pro Research)

Furthermore, a worker or two who is immersed in academia can bring a skillset that your organization might be lacking, dramatically advancing projects. If you’re considering new hardware, software, or initiatives, who better to do some of the research on alternatives and benefits than someone who has spent their “career” to this point learning, researching, and analyzing?

In the technology field in particular, students with a passion for technology have likely immersed themselves in the latest technologies and tools. The intern likely knows more about emerging development tools than a 20-year veteran whose focus is primarily on maintaining in-house tools versus learning the latest and greatest.

If your organization in any way targets consumers, a likely scenario whether your shop is in the commercial sector, government, or nonprofit, you are likely building products, services, or tools that will ultimately be used by millennials. Getting a few of them on your team can provide immeasurable, immediate feedback.

How to get started

The good news about internship programs is that most universities and technical schools are extremely interested in placing their students in meaningful internship programs, and are more than willing to help you get started. Reach out to the school’s career office or IT department and find an interested school or two where you can build a relationship.

SEE: The future of IT jobs: A business leader’s guide (Tech Pro Research)

Take the time to plan for what interns will do when they arrive. Identify project-type work that they can help with that has a defined start, end, and outputs versus trying to integrate interns into the day-to-day operation of your shop, since they will ultimately disappear at the end of the summer.

Good projects might be researching a new system, helping implement a discrete part of a new hardware or software project, or designing and building a prototype of some sort. Bad projects might include dropping the intern on your help desk, or putting them in an administrative role. Consider assigning each intern a mentor who can guide them as they complete the program and provide some degree of supervision. Ideally mentors volunteer for this activity, since it will be time consuming, but also very fulfilling.

If you can identify several good projects that benefit the intern as well as your organization, consider hiring three or more interns versus one or two, even if this is your first year offering an internship program. This will provide the interns with a group of peers who can make their first professional experience a bit less daunting. If other departments within your company hire interns, try to piggyback on their programs as much as possible, both to further the success of your IT internship program as well as provide your interns with a peer group.

SEE: Recruiting and hiring top talent: A guide for business leaders (TechRepublic)

Consult your HR department to help with the nuts and bolts of hourly wages and on-boarding logistics, and establish key dates and activities for the program with their assistance. At a minimum, start the summer with some pomp and circumstance, and end the year with a performance assessment and development points provided to the intern, as well as a frank discussion with him or her about their experience working with your organization.

Learn from your interns

Some companies make the mistake of regarding an internship program as a charitable activity, where they are bestowing a benefit upon the intern in a completely one-sided transaction. Avoid this mistake and look at your internship program as a two-way street. You’ll certainly benefit from the work done by the interns, but the program also provides an opportunity to develop a relationship (and new hire pipeline) with local universities, get meaningful work done, and better prepare your organization for the next generation of workers.