4 Steps to Convert Student Interns/Co-ops to Full-Time Employees

By Plum

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Prioritizing Meaningful Work can Convert Student Talent to Long-Term Employees


Meaningful work. That’s what most college students look forward to in a career after graduation. Even in internships they hope to do more than organize filing cabinets and carry lunch orders.

When finding student interns and hiring new grads, consider these several strategies to recruit student talent that converts into long-term, stellar employees.

The Hiring Challenge

With school back in session, recruiters are ramping up again for job fair booths, on-campus interviews, and collaboration with campus career centers to find the best students and new grads. While returning to an alma mater and meeting fresh faces can be great, the process of finding and placing potential talent is an arduous one.

In 2018, Employers expected to increase intern hiring by 1.7% and of co-op students by 0.6%, according to NACE. Yet competition for high potential performers is fierce (in the U.S., for instance, the number of job openings and job seekers is currently the same). At the same time, identifying the best potential candidates is challenging when the skills and knowledge on the young applicants’ resumes are nearly identical.

Forward-thinking organizations look at internship and student hiring with a long-term lens. They want to not only hire the best, but also successfully convert those interns or co-operative education students into full-time employees who develop into company superstars. But both internship and co-op program conversion rates were below 50% in 2018 (45.6% and 27.8% respectively), per NACE.

How does your organization avoid investing resources in students or new grads who will take the experience they gain to another employer? We have some suggestions.

1. Hire for Talent

A 2018 study found that employers recruit their interns and co-ops using the following top key criteria:

  • Recruiting experience with the school;
  • The majors offered;
  • The location of the school; and
  • The perceived quality of the programs.

Instead of focusing exclusively on what someone knows and can do, or where they went to school and what they studied there, focus on true differentiators. Most of your applicants will have the same degrees and similarly sparse on-the-job skills and experience. Instead prioritize communication, creativity, teamwork, or innovation to identify future top performers and better predict their on-the-job success.

[Read the press release: Find out how Plum is partnering with the world's largest school and work integrated program to place 21,000+ students into roles where they thrive]

Knowing whether the student finds collaborative work meaningful, is an innate team player, or has the problem solving abilities to enjoy analytical tasks, can help you place potential future employees in roles that resonate. This leads to more productive students providing greater value as interns or co-op students. The students also gain a more positive experience with your organization, which can make them more likely to want to join you long-term after graduation.

81% of students were dissatisfied with their internship experiences due to a lack of meaningful work.

 —  NACE

2. Provide Meaningful Work

Many companies today are investing in programs to identify high potential (HiPo) talent. However, according to the Harvard Business Review, a common mistake with these HiPo programs is that candidates are selected based largely on technical expertise, culture fit, and their history of taking initiative and delivering results.

Yet your interns and co-op hires can’t demonstrate initiative or deliver results without the opportunities to make a difference. Plus, they are less likely to demonstrate their innate leadership potential if all they’re doing is culling names from contact lists or making sure data is entered correctly.

And if the true predictor of success in a HiPo program is leadership potential, and not a past history of technical expertise and taking initiative, there's no reason why you need to wait for your intern or co-op student to convert to a full-time employee to enroll them into your organization's HiPo program.

Placing students or new grads into your HiPo program indicates that you see and value their potential — and who among us doesn’t work harder and develop faster when we want to live up to someone’s expectations?

3. Prioritize Diversity and Inclusion (D&I)

Millennials and Gen Zers want to work in a diverse and inclusive workplace. A 2016 study found 47% of Millennials consider D&I an important criterion in their job search. They reasoned emphasizing diversity and inclusion makes the company a better place to work in general, and improves employee morale.

Again, though, the experience and education sections of a resume aren’t going to help recruiters find the employees who will thrive in a diverse, inclusive culture. More than simply ticking off age, gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and other boxes on a hiring checklist, an inclusive workplace requires hiring individuals with an eye to their social intelligence, communication skills, and ability to collaborate with teams.

4. Hire for the Future of Work

In recruiting on campuses, think beyond the day-to-day responsibilities of an intern or new hire’s roles. To effectively retain bright young talent, you need to anticipate where they might fit with your organization in the future — even in roles that don’t exist yet.

According to the World Economic Forum, talents such as coordinating with others, negotiation, and teaching others will be especially critical in the future of work. And the Harvard Business Review highlights imagination, creativity, and strategy as the future of work.

For many campus recruiters this approach requires a perspective shift. Yet with a focus on recruiting and retaining talent, you can not only more successfully convert interns and co-op students into long-term employees but also develop a workforce ready to adapt to the roles in the future.

Plum can help. Find out more on our Campus Recruitment Solutions Page.