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Josh Castilleja, an intern with Tempe, Ariz.'s traffic engineering division, learns the basics on the job. Photo: City of Tempe.

Second, interns accomplish a lot, partly because they're eager and energetic, but also because they want to gain business skills and real-world experience.

“We get so much accomplished while they're here over the summer, it's OK if they leave us when the program is over since we get a lot out of them,” says Greg Boysen, public works director in Buffalo Grove, Ill., a Chicago suburb of 43,000 people. His interns, titled engineering aides, are primarily high school students who perform drafting, CAD, and GIS work.

Finally, interns can become qualified candidates for permanent positions once they graduate from high school or college. NACE's survey shows that 73% of interns are extended full-time job offers after they finish college, and 53% become full-time employees where they interned. In this case, they're already familiar with the department's inner workings and don't need to catch up. Knowing those behind-the-scenes details saves valuable time in the first few days, enabling the new employee to start contributing more quickly.

Down The Road

A good succession plan incorporates interns—and their eventual permanent employment. Luckenbaugh says that this is one of the best ways to build a talent pipeline. It's also a good way to build a relationship with colleges and recruitment organizations for additional recruiting, including older alumni. Though a succession plan typically looks at how to promote current employees, we sometimes forget that even the director had to start somewhere, usually at the bottom. And to fill those bottom positions, interns are often the best place to start.

Jessica Williams, the part-time recruitment and outreach officer with Tempe public works and also a student at Arizona State University, is a good example.

Though both her parents work in private industry, she can't see herself in the private sector now that she's seen the inner workings of the city's public works team. “The benefits of staying with the city, like overall quality of life and $5000 in tuition reimbursement once I'm a full-time employee, far outweigh what the private sector can offer,” she says.

Williams would like to bring in even more interns so students have more experience when they apply for jobs—she hopes with Tempe. Already, she has raised the city's recruitment to a new level; more than 60 applicants came in for a vacant fleet director position, a record number of candidates for any position. Her experience with the city council and political leaders is not only interesting to her as a political science major, it also has prepared her for a career in the municipal workforce.

Adams concedes that she doesn't know what a future public works department will look like, so succession planning is difficult. Williams thinks that by having more interns on staff, future employees will be more adaptive and better prepared. Either way, Tempe will be better prepared as baby boomers leave and entry-level positions open up.

How to start your program

Here are the top five things you'll need to launch an intern program.

  • A goal. No one likes to just stand around or feel like his talents are going unused. Provide interesting and challenging work for interns, or even a one-time project to complete.
  • Money. Funds can be pulled from many budget lines, often coming from the temporary line or from individual departments' budgets.
  • A mentor or supervisor. Select someone who takes pride in what she does and will train the intern. This requires a time commitment and dedication.
  • Dedicated workspace or classroom space. Make sure your department has set aside adequate room for this new employee. Office work may require a computer or cubicle space. Training may be in a classroom.
  • A good source for interns. Local colleges and vocational high schools are a good place to start. Technical, engineering, and construction degree programs often require internships. Befriend their placement or career counselor.