Success Strategies for Internship and Co-Op Programs

Many organizations are using internships and cooperative education programs, or “co-ops,” to give college students experience and prepare them for the work environment. We’ve all heard stories about when these programs don’t work out – everything from inappropriate dress to more grievous offences like lying, cheating and stealing – but one of the most common laments is the student that displays a poor attitude, is often late or fails to volunteer for projects.


When this happens, it’s likely they are bored or frustrated with the program, and this is often the result of a program that wasn’t developed strategically or is in need of a few adjustments to get it back on course. So, how do you either build a strategic program or make adjustments to your current one so everyone can find success?

It’s important to note that not all companies use the terms “internship” and “co-op” separately, and many use them interchangeably, so it’s important to clearly define your program for all parties (management, HR, students, etc.).

An internship is usually a one-time work assignment that typically doesn’t interfere with college classes and often occurs in the summer. Internships can be full- or part-time, paid or unpaid, depending on the employer and the career field. Most ideal candidates are undergraduate students with an average GPA of 3.0 (though some programs require a 3.5), who are looking to gain experience in their chosen field, create or build their network of contacts and gain school credit.

A co-op program shares many of the same elements of an internship program, but the jobs are full-time, paid positions that provide more training than an internship. Co-ops are often a joint venture between a college or university and a company, they traditionally alternate work terms with school terms, they usually offer opportunities across many functions, and are ideal for graduate students or students transitioning from their education to the workforce. Most students receive credit for a co-op by writing a paper or giving a presentation about their experience after their co-op has ended.

If you’re looking for a faster, easier way to set up an internship or co-op program, Enterforce’s “Students Taking Active Roles to Succeed (STARS)” program offers clients access to an organized program that can be customized based on client specifications and is built around a system in which students are pre-screened, selected and recruited through an already established university outreach network. This program provides value and return on investment because we train and mentor interns and co-ops, managing the entire process, and, when the interns and co-ops are ready, they can be hired directly.

We recommend several tips to ensure a successful co-op or internship program, including:

  1. Making Your Program Challenging – Gone are the days of the intern/co-op serving as the office errand runner and filing clerk. Today, internships are most successful when assignments, projects and tasks are meaningful and provide appropriate opportunities for students to get “hands-on” experience and rise to the occasion.
  2. Setting Expectations – Mutually agreeing on learning objectives for the internship/co-op period minimizes disappointments for both parties.
  3. Providing Mentorship – Mentoring is critical to the success of an intern/co-op program. Be certain to engage your best managers with interns to ensure that each is given the right amount of guidance and training.
  4. Converting Your Best Candidates – These programs provide the perfect opportunity for you to train your next group of future hires. In fact, according to a 2013 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the conversion rate for interns in 2013 was 48.4 percent, while the conversion rate for co-op students was 36.9 percent. Additionally, companies that participated in the survey indicated that they retained 88 percent of employees they hired from their intern/co-op programs after one year and 73 percent after five years.

Whether you’re looking to start your first internship or co-op program, or refresh your current one, we find that the most successful companies strategize about the hiring of interns and co-ops as an important part of their workforce, while actively creating opportunities to gain the best return on their investment. The result is a program that provides an exceptionally positive experience for all parties, allowing the organization to groom the most qualified workers and convert them to employees who are already familiar with your company and will require less training once they are hired.