How to turn interns into employees and use internships to build talent pools

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One of the biggest challenges accountancy practices face is getting the right people with the right skills. Internship programmes can potentially give businesses access to a future pool of talent.

But how best can finance firms transition skilled, young graduates from interns to permanent members of the team?

Cultivate relationships

Treating interns as valuable team members is a sure-fire way of embedding them quickly into the company.

The importance of this is not lost on Hooi Kok Mun, Senior Partner, National Audit Practice Leader, Grant Thornton: “We always provide a supportive environment to our interns and their senior will evaluate their work performance so that they can suggest their area for improvement. They also will experience the real case study within a team so that they can learn and grow together.”

Cadre, a small accountancy firm in Cardiff, hired its first intern in the summer. Tax Director Jamie Williams hopes in the future the programme will help it identify and recruit talented graduates at the end of the experience.

“The internship programme will give us an opportunity to actually understand whether that person would be a good fit for the company and if they would actually enjoy working at the firm,” he explains. “If, after the summer, we like the way they work and they get on with the team, that would probably lead to an offer of employment.”

Take a strategic approach

Baker Hughes has established a three-pronged strategy to maintain positive relationships with interns. Firstly, Nelly Poh, Global Finance Organization (GFO) Learning & Development Lead, explains that a university bootcamp has been set up: “It’s a two-day ‘get to know Baker Hughes’ event. Students also get to participate in case studies and do a presentation before senior leaders of the Finance organisation”.

Secondly, the firm has created a “university ambassador programme that builds a regular engagement with universities.” Thirdly, Baker Hughes makes sure that there are champions in the global finance organisation designed to “target universities for continuous engagements.”

There are significant benefits to maintaining relationships with interns. As Hooi says, “while internships can be beneficial for both the firm and students in the short term, we also convert interns into entry-level employees”.

Encourage real-world contributions

At the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) says a graduate programme has been established to offer former interns and other qualified applicants “a unique opportunity to contribute to UNDP’s mandate”, HR specialist at the UNDP’s Global Shared Service Centre (GSSC) Kris Oestvang says. The intern/organisation relationship can undoubtedly be bolstered by the intern being made to feel they are part of a larger plan. At the UNDP, graduate trainees take part in a two-year assignment with one of the UN’s country, regional or headquarter offices.

Trainees are able to gain direct exposure to UNDP's work with an onus placed on two streams: ‘programme and policy’ and ‘corporate operations.’ In the former, they “contribute to UNDP’s programmes and project activities.” The latter stream enables trainees to “contribute to management services that support effective implementation of UNDP programmes, or work in the area of organisational policies, processes, and oversight”.

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But how do you measure success and identify interns that are the right fit for the company?

It’s all about attitude, aptitude and determination to learn, says Deepak Shukla, founder of London-based Pearl Lemon Accountants. The company works in collaboration with Pearl Lemon Placements, an accelerated internship programme that he created. At the end of the six-month period - which involves training from heads of teams, one to one check-ins with HR and self-taught online video tutorials - interns are either offered a job or move elsewhere if it’s not a right fit for them or the firm.

Successful participants have gone on to earn salaries of up to $80,000 within the company. Shukla says, however, that’s only possible when the intern’s will to succeed is matched by their ability and resilience when the going gets tough. And of course, it’s essential that they clearly enjoy the work and the people they work with.

Interns are integrated into teams during the programme to prepare them for the possibility of eventual employment. They are given leadership responsibilities and told that this is the view to grow within the company.

“We've got a very horizontal structure,” explains Shukla. “So people can carve out their own roles within the business as long as they can demonstrate their value. That's where the onus is placed - become indispensable and we will support you correspondingly.”

Mazars also sees the benefits of a flat hierarchy. “On a personal level, our team members and managers are encouraged to adopt a flat hierarchy, in order to create closer bonds,” Fah Yow states.

Formerly transition from intern to employee

After an intern has been formally hired, it’s vital they are officially onboarded into the organisation. At Pearl Lemon, that means filling in a 27 question onboarding form and watching an induction video. They also receive an official offer letter, NDAs, and details of the full scope of work.

It’s then vital that former interns understand what is now expected of them as employees. Shukla says his firm works with all team members to come up with mutually agreed KPIs and support them throughout to achieve them.

He adds: “We support their development by continuing to push their feet, in a nice way, towards the fire - in terms of responsibility, in terms of trying to get things done on your own. It’s about the value that you drive yourself.”

Maintain an alumni community

On the flip side, however, there will be interns that you inevitably have to part ways with. But just because it didn’t work out doesn’t mean firms should completely cut ties with them.

Larger organisations often have “alumni” networks for former interns to maintain a formal link with the company after the programme has ended. For smaller firms, keeping some sort of relationship going with interns that have left could bear fruit in the future.

After all, reminds Luke Fletcher, founder of Reading-based firm Raw Accounting, you never know “when they might pop up again in the future”.

Fletcher, who previously worked for two of the biggest accountancy companies in the country, helping run their respective internship programmes as a line manager, says initially it’s about keeping those people on your professional radar, whether that’s by adding them to LinkedIn or following them on Twitter.

“It may be that they were college students when they did the internship and after they left they decided to go to university to study something different,” he adds. “But three or four years later, that person may be looking for their first career opportunity and will remember the good experience you gave them. If you’ve kept in touch maybe they will come back to you. You never know where and when talented people are going to turn up. So keeping communication open in a professional way is very important.”

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