Don’t just pay interns, help them build networks

October 7, 2022

Summer internships are a proven gateway to jobs. But that gateway is not equally open to students from different backgrounds. Low-income, first-generation, and underrepresented students’ internship participation rates lag behind those of their wealthier, white peers. Moreover, access to paid internships, which are associated with long-term wage premiums, remains uneven along lines of race and class.

Any organization with an internship program should be asking itself: Are your company’s internships a cause of or a cure for workplace inequality? The answer depends not only on who gets internships, but also what those interns get in exchange for their time.

By now, it’s widely acknowledged that paying interns is a critical first step to addressing barriers to access for historically underrepresented students who otherwise could not afford to spend their summers working for free. But simply paying an intern isn’t enough to jumpstart a career. In a labor market where an estimated half of jobs come through networks, social capital remains the other key currency for getting ahead. Diversifying access to internships as an inroad to not just compensation, but also connections is also essential.

Based on my and my colleagues’ research on innovative strategies to expand and diversify young people’s networks, we’ve surfaced practical, research-backed approaches that can connect interns more equitably across your enterprise and harness the full potential of a diverse talent pool. Here’s where you should start:

Think beyond the hourly wage.

Paid internships, along with relocation and housing stipends, can address real barriers to entry for interns from low-income families. But there can still be barriers to building networks and connections. After all, even casual lunches and coffees, where employees build rapport and exchange advice, don’t come cheap.

That’s led some advocates to work to ensure interns have daily stipends for meals. “We give all of our students a $20 per day lunch stipend,” said Kevin Davis, founder and chair of the nonprofit First Workings, which offers internships for underrepresented high school students in New York City. In a recent interview with researcher Brent Orrell of AEI, Davis explained that the purpose of these stipends is to help interns buy time to connect. “The idea there is to build social capital [and] create relationships,” Davis says. “So, if a colleague says, ‘Hey, we’re all going out for coffee after work’ or ‘we’re all having a sandwich at lunch,’ [they] can participate.” He adds: “It’s those interactions at work which enable you to acquire a mentor.”

Don’t just assign a manager — build a web of support.

Employers often assign supervisors or even mentors to interns. While that might be sufficient for managing day-to-day work, research from the CERES Institute has shown that webs of supportive connections are critical to thriving. For example, Old Navy’s This Way ONward program seeks to place 16 to 24-year-olds facing barriers to employment in engaging first jobs that will serve as foundations for successful careers. Participants have access to not only an in-store supervisor, but also a job coach (from a local nonprofit with which the company partners), a “big sib” (a young employee), and peer associates. This web of support appears to pay off. According to one alumni survey, 72% of participants went on to secure stable employment compared with 55% of their peers.

Companies should pay particularly close attention to the often-overlooked upside that a “big sib” can offer. While your younger employees may have less wisdom and experience, they can offer know-how and relatability that other mentors can’t. In fact, in a recent study by the Search Institute of organizations aimed at expanding low-income students’ and students of color’s career prospects, near peers (those close in age and experience) emerged as the relationship that provided program participants with the most resources, including connections to others and useful skills and insights on reaching education or employment goals.

Make feedback real through relationships.

Your interns need feedback, in addition to networking opportunities. Creating opportunities for interns to get constructive, useful feedback can not only improve their task performance, but also their relationships across the office. Numerous studies on internship quality have highlighted that well-structured projects, along with feedback on said projects, are critical to intern satisfaction and productivity. Research from the Wisconsin Center for Education Research suggests, however, that supervisors tend to offer general support for interns’ wellbeing but are less likely to provide the rich, task-specific feedback that interns want.

To start, invite more individuals to review an intern’s work. Colleagues can offer not only a fresh set of eyes but also a broader context about where tasks intersect with organizational goals. According to Jeffrey Moss, founder and CEO of Parker Dewey, a company that pairs students with paid microinternships, diversifying sources of feedback can boost interns’ sense of purpose and belonging. “It’s invaluable to show the interns where his or her work fits within the larger effort of the company, [such as] how the case study created by a marketing intern aligns to a need within sales, or the competitive analysis is used by the product development team,” Moss said. “It demonstrates that the intern’s work is valued, a key component to ensuring he or she feels like part of the team.”

Take the chance out of chance encounters — including online.

For employers still navigating the tradeoffs of virtual and in-person work, ensuring interns are fostering connections might feel daunting. Spontaneous encounters in an office environment are the kind of thing that might have been left to chance before the pandemic. But there are big benefits to taking the time to facilitate these connections.

In their 2021 report on “Virtual Watercoolers,” Harvard Business School researchers found that even brief, online, synchronous, informal interactions between remote interns and senior managers increased interns’ performance, attitudes, and eventual likelihood of receiving offers for full-time employment. Returns were even stronger among interns who were matched with demographically similar senior managers, as defined by shared gender and ethnicity.

For companies still operating in a virtual or hybrid capacity, make sure you are offering opportunities for informal, online conversations, including with senior managers. This will not only help build a culture of belonging and success for interns generally, but data also suggests that both entry-level employees and employees of color are particularly likely to report feeling lonely in the workplace. Informal relationship-building will not solve all of this, but it can bolster employee engagement.

Invest in, and measure, lasting relationships.

The value of a network is rarely one-and-done. A colleague may offer episodic support on projects. Down the line, that same colleague might offer referrals to new jobs or opportunities. Although it’s hard to predict perfectly if and how a relationship might open doors, professionals, particularly those operating in industries that place a premium on social skills, are incentivized to invest in their networks.

Interns just testing the waters in the world of work may not share this understanding of how to build or mobilize networks. And according to research from America’s Promise Alliance, young people of color and from low-income families believe connections and social capital are essential for navigating their career journeys but report struggling to build them.

Arming interns with the skills, mindsets, and confidence to forge connections across your company can unlock valuable social capital that outlasts the summer. Investing in targeted network- and relationship-building training can help. For example, Social Capital Builders Inc., a social enterprise, offers a program called Foundations in Social Capital Literacy – a cousin to financial literacy – to young adults just entering the workforce. Another organization, MENTOR, has created a curriculum called Connect Focus Grow that can help interns and their supervisors alike deepen their relationship-building and networking skills.

From there, you can take proactive steps to understand how connected your interns actually are. Collecting data, and disaggregating it by interns’ backgrounds, is critical to checking assumptions about what is and isn’t working for your interns. There are fairly simple ways to understand which interns are building relationships and how those relationships are, in turn, offering them resources like support, advice, and feedback. A weekly pulse check on whom interns interacted with can offer supervisors insight into how connected or isolated their interns are. Employers that want to go further can ask interns to maintain network maps throughout their experience to keep track of and reflect on new connections. If they are already deploying an intern survey, they can also integrate survey items that use what sociologists call name and position generators to measure how connected interns are before and after their summer work experience.

Now more than ever, companies are turning to internships — and even “pre-internships” — as a strategy to diversify their pipeline. If internships are going to operate as engines that promote inclusion rather than perpetuate inequality in the labor market, compensating interns with both financial and social capital matters. Calls to expand access to internships, especially paid ones, are well-intentioned. But they’ll fail to deliver on their full potential without a careful eye on who students get to know along the way.

This piece was originally published in Harvard Business Review here.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. Her work aims to educate policymakers and community leaders on the power of Disruptive Innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres. Be sure to check out her book, "Who You Know: Unlocking Innovations That Expand Students' Networks"

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