Q&A: Rethinking Internship Hiring Strategies with Sushmita Mishra

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This week we’re in conversation with Sushmita Mishra, Senior People Manager, SquadStack. We talk about Rethinking Internship Hiring Strategies.

The interview is edited for length and clarity.

Q- How is the internship scenario changing now?

I come from Lucknow and completed my post-graduation MBA at Lucknow University. Afterwards, I moved to Delhi. This question reminded me of my own internship experience. Coming from a city like Lucknow, I always dreamt of working for big companies like Microsoft or Google. I was fortunate to secure a three-month unpaid internship at a prominent corporate organization, which I won't name. Despite the lack of payment, I saw it as an opportunity to gain valuable experience and familiarize myself with the corporate world.

Back then, it was common for internships to be unpaid. However, the situation has changed, and most companies now provide stipends to their interns. From my interactions with other companies, I've learned that the scenario has evolved. Speaking from our perspective at Squadstack, we have always approached internships with the mindset of hiring interns as part of our organization. We do not differentiate between interns and full-time employees, and we offer a competitive stipend. For non-tech roles, we pay around 30,000 per month, and for tech roles, we offer 45,000 per month. It's a decent internship arrangement.

We make it clear to our interns that although they start as interns, they are considered full-time employees and are expected to work accordingly. We avoid any form of discrimination. There’s a strategic approach to hiring because we understand that investing time in each individual is essential. We ensure proper onboarding and assign buddies to assist interns during their time with us. Unfortunately, not all companies grasp the importance of this approach. Hiring interns solely to fill staffing gaps without considering long-term plans can lead to a negative return on investment. If interns leave within a few months, it creates a challenge for the organization. To avoid such issues, we prioritize careful and thoughtful hiring practices.

Over the years, I have realized that hiring and firing employees without proper planning is not the best approach. It often leads to layoffs, which is a regrettable situation. When we made early offers, we made the mistake of conducting layoffs as well. Since then, we have been cautious and intentional with our hiring decisions. We always ask ourselves three crucial questions when hiring: what, who, and why. These considerations also apply to our intern hires. When we bring on interns, we have the intention of offering them a Pre-Placement Offer (PPO), which means we envision them becoming full-time employees after completing their internship. We converted 10 interns into full-time positions across various departments such as marketing, tech, and data science the previous week

Q- Do you believe that internships have become exploitative and lost their value, particularly after layoffs, where interns are tasked with too many tasks?

The nature of internships being exploitative and losing value depends on the company culture and the people involved. In our case, we hired an SEO intern even though there wasn't much work in that specific area. However, we ensured that the intern was involved in other marketing initiatives and learned from experienced team members. It also depends on how interns perceive the situation and the tasks assigned to them. Interns today, especially Gen Z, are vocal about their expectations and are not willing to engage in tasks they find unimpactful. If they feel their internship is not fulfilling, they may quickly seek alternatives or discontinue. We have cultivated a culture that recognizes the importance of providing meaningful work to interns. While there may be instances where internships have been devalued, I don't completely agree with the notion. Times have changed since the days when I personally experienced menial tasks like stapling or copying during a free internship.

Q- How can organizations justify offering internships and increasing the number of interns given the current market's tough and uncertain conditions for full-time roles?

When hiring interns, there are instances when college placements are ongoing, and interns anticipate a post-internship full-time offer. However, they may also be exploring other opportunities during their time with us. It's crucial to provide them with meaningful and impactful work, ensuring their learning is not compromised. We strive to equip interns with essential skills and tools that enhance their market value. While not every internship can lead to a permanent position, we acknowledge the value of offering internship completion certificates to support their job search. In today's job market, proficiency in specific tools, such as HubSpot or QuickBooks, is often expected. Therefore, fostering an understanding of these tools and guiding interns in adapting to the office culture is equally important.

It's worth noting that the current work-from-home culture has affected interns' learning experiences. Working in isolation without collaborative work environments limits their exposure and hampers their ability to adapt to new settings. We have recognized this challenge and encourage interns to work from our office locations, including Bangalore, Mumbai, Goa, or Noida. This allows for a more conducive learning environment.

Q- Considering these factors, how do you believe internships can be redesigned or restructured to maintain their relevance in today's dynamic and demanding work environment?

I believe the duration of an internship is crucial. If it's only one or two months, the person won't have enough time to learn and grow. Ideally, internships should last a minimum of three months and a maximum of six months. It's important for organizations to plan the intern's career progression, just as they do for full-time employees. This includes outlining the tasks assigned to them and providing clear goals and projects. By setting a structured career path during the internship, meaningful learning can take place.

Unfortunately, many organizations overlook these aspects and simply assign interns tasks based on immediate needs or offer repetitive manual work. However, it's essential to provide interns with tasks that involve research, brainstorming, and collaboration. Collaboration is a vital element that shouldn't be neglected. When structuring internships for my team or non-technical teams, I prioritize maximum collaboration, allowing interns to interact with leaders and CXOs to understand the company's vision and progression. This not only motivates them but also sparks new ideas and thoughts.

By considering these factors and implementing a structured approach to internships, organizations can ensure that interns receive valuable experiences that contribute to their growth and development.

Q- Apart from these, what are the best practices for onboarding and integrating interns into the workplace culture?

Along with the previously mentioned practices, there are several other best practices for onboarding and integrating interns into the workplace culture:

1. Orientation and introduction: Provide a comprehensive orientation program that familiarizes interns with the company's mission, values, policies, and procedures. Introduce them to key team members and departments to help them understand the overall organizational structure.

2. Mentorship and guidance: Assigning a buddy to the intern can greatly enhance their onboarding experience by providing them with a dedicated person to turn to for guidance and support. The mentor can assist them in navigating their roles, answering questions, and providing insights into the company culture.

3. Clear expectations and goals: Clearly communicate the intern's roles, responsibilities, and performance expectations from the beginning. Set achievable goals and milestones to track their progress and provide regular evaluations to help them understand their strengths and areas for improvement. A well-structured 30-day plan that outlines specific tasks and objectives for each week can help interns understand their responsibilities and make progress towards their goals.

Proper planning, care, and regular feedback demonstrate the organization's commitment to the intern's development and success. By providing a structured and supportive environment, organizations can create a positive internship experience that facilitates learning, growth, and smooth integration into the workplace culture.

4. Training and development opportunities: Offer training sessions, workshops, or access to relevant resources to enhance their skills and knowledge. Encourage interns to attend company-wide training programs and provide opportunities for them to attend industry events or conferences.

5. Inclusion and involvement: Foster a sense of inclusion by involving interns in team meetings, projects, and social activities. Encourage collaboration and interaction with colleagues, creating opportunities for knowledge sharing and networking.

6. Feedback and recognition: Provide consistent feedback on interns' performance and acknowledge their achievements. Constructive feedback helps them improve, while recognition boosts their morale and motivation.

7. Regular check-ins: Schedule regular check-in meetings to discuss their progress, address any concerns or questions they may have, and provide ongoing support. These meetings also allow interns to express their ideas, seek guidance, and contribute to team discussions.

8. Professional development opportunities: Offer intern-specific professional development opportunities, such as workshops on resume building, interview skills, and career planning. Encourage them to participate in skill-building projects or assignments that align with their interests and career goals.

9. Networking opportunities: Facilitate networking opportunities for interns to connect with professionals in their field of interest. Arrange informal meetups, networking events, or lunch sessions where they can interact with employees from different departments or levels.

10. Exit interviews and feedback: Conduct exit interviews or surveys to gather feedback from interns about their overall experience. This feedback can help identify areas for improvement in the internship program and provide insights for future internships.

By implementing these best practices, organizations can effectively onboard and integrate interns into the workplace culture, maximizing their learning experience and contributing to their professional growth.

Q- How do you evaluate the success or the impact of these programs?

When evaluating the success or impact of internship programs, it is important to set clear Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for the interns. These KPIs should be aligned with the goals and objectives of the internship program. By defining specific targets or milestones to be achieved during the internship period, organizations can effectively assess the interns' performance and measure the impact of their contributions.

Additionally, it can be beneficial to establish a commitment with the interns regarding potential full-time conversion. This commitment can be based on the interns' achievement of a certain percentage of the agreed-upon KPIs. By providing this assurance and clearly communicating the potential benefits, such as the salary package, organizations can motivate interns to strive for excellence and give their best efforts during the internship.

Regular monitoring and evaluation of the interns' progress towards the set KPIs, along with ongoing feedback and performance discussions, will provide insights into the effectiveness of the internship program. It allows organizations to gauge the interns' development, the value they bring to the organization, and their potential for future employment.

This can also help organizations determine the success of their internship programs and make informed decisions regarding potential conversions or improvements to the program.

Q- What are some strategies that organizations can employ to attract the top talent of top-quality interns?

When it comes to hiring interns, many organizations believe that recruiting from top tech colleges is the best strategy. However, that may not always be the case. At our organization, we take a different approach. We not only consider the academic achievements of potential interns but also look into their extracurricular activities and projects outside of college. This helps us gauge their broader skill set and their dedication to learning beyond their coursework.

In addition, platforms like HackerRank have a pool of talented individuals actively seeking internships. We specifically target such platforms to find exceptional candidates. While we acknowledge the value of prestigious colleges, we also recognize that talent can be found in various institutions. For instance, at Scott Steiger, we have successfully hired interns from institutions other than Ivy League colleges, and they have made significant contributions to our team.

When screening resumes, it's crucial to consider not only the college attended but also the candidate's involvement in other initiatives and activities. This holistic approach gives us a better understanding of their potential and their ability to excel in different areas.

Furthermore, keeping tabs on alumni networks can be beneficial. Alumni often have valuable insights and can help identify potential interns who have previously demonstrated their abilities within the organization.

By broadening our perspective and considering candidates based on their diverse experiences and achievements, we can find exceptional interns who bring unique perspectives and skills to our organization.

Do you work in HR? Email janhavi.jain@springworks.in and Let’a Talk!