Zimbabwean companies, especially smaller ones, have a complicated relationship with internship programs. Most of the time, the same companies which demand employees with previous work experience are the same which seem to shun the idea of hiring interns themselves. Those companies which fail to recognize the potential benefits of internship programs to their business may simply be approaching the concept with the wrong attitude. It is quite possible to run an internship program which benefits both your hires and your business at the same time.

Start with reasonable pay

One of the biggest and most touted advantages of hiring interns is the low wage bill. Unfortunately in a country like Zimbabwe where salaries of even the permanently employed tend to be barely able to keep up with the cost of living, deciding what to pay your interns can be tricky. If you pursue cheap labour without fully considering factors such as the cost of living and how much interns in similar positions are getting paid elsewhere, your internship program will most likely be a huge disappointment for both yourself and your interns.

Another reason for some companies’ reluctance to institute internship programs is the country’s dismal employment rate which sometimes makes it possible to get reasonably qualified individuals to fill in roles permanently at roughly the same cost as interns. Employers who then, armed with this awareness, proceed to pay interns intentionally low salaries (or allowances) will experience an extremely high turnover rate in their internship programmes as most of their interns will actively be looking for alternatives while still under their employ.

The training and experience you are exposing interns to may be important and beneficial, but do not let this lure you into a false sense of comfort—people will choose money over any unique workplace experience that you believe your firm has to offer.

Don’t exploit interns

Some companies consider internship programs to be burdens which tend to benefit interns more than they do their businesses. Some have attempted to remedy this by trying to aggressively squeeze more out of their interns. The result is usually such companies being given a wide berth in the future by individuals seeking internships.

Routinely promote interns to permanent positions

One of the best ways of incentivising your interns to perform at their best is periodically hiring some of them into permanent positions. This also has the effect of encouraging more and better people to seek to join your internship program. These programs can also be used to identify those people with potentially valuable skills and talents which interviews or C.Vs cannot pick out.

Take interns seriously

Internships in some companies are said to be nothing more than sustained hazing rituals where every day is a reminder of your lowly status within the company. This means that interns are usually tasked with a disproportionate share of menial tasks. Besides making the workplace frustrating and demotivating for interns, such practices are a waste of what is potentially a valuable company resource. You will discover that if encouraged, interns usually have far more ideas to contribute than their full-time colleagues (though these may not always be the best or practical).

Adjust your expectations

There is an ever-increasing amount of complaints that institutions of higher learning are only teaching ‘theory’ to students. While I cannot completely discount these claims I must point out that the majority of the complaints seem to come from smaller businesses who expect even interns to hit the ground running, their bigger counterparts appear for the most part to be satisfied with the kinds of graduates that they are receiving from these institutions. Such complaints are due to a clash of expectations: some businesses underestimate the extent of the role that actual work experience plays in turning someone fresh out of school into a full-fledged member of the workforce. Said work experience is what interns are really looking for instead of being constantly berated for lacking it.

Give interns autonomy

Since you must strive to ensure that the internship experience is as close as possible to actual employment, the amount of oversight that interns and their work get should not be excessive or be more than that which a new and inexperienced permanent employee would be subjected to. Oversight and guidance of interns should be conducted to ensure that they can progress to working on their own as soon as possible. In short, supervision should be reduced as interns gain more experience.

Cultivate in-house talent

You can also use the internship program to identify and cultivate talent that is already within your firm. The oversight, training and management of interns can be used to nurture leadership skills in your current, particularly more junior, employees; after all, interns are the only members in your workforce who can rank less than the least senior people in your permanent employ. In this way, you do not have to wait for employees to get promotions before you can give their leadership abilities a test drive.