Paid Internships: An Employer Engagement Tool That Works

Published oct. 05, 2015

Staff from Black Island Wind Turbines in Amherst, Massachusetts, with two of their Summer, 2015 Massachusetts Clean Energy Program interns.

By Kevin Doyle

Higher education is in a delicate dance with the world of employers. On the one hand, educators know that they are expected to deliver graduates who are “workforce ready.” On the other hand, most everyone agrees that higher education is about more than vocational training; and that meeting the idiosyncratic needs of thousands of different employers is beyond the ability of colleges.

What to do?

Of the available tools, one of the best is investment in paid internships. An award-winning program from the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center is a good example.

Since 2011, MassCEC has supported over 1,300 paid interns at hundreds of companies. Paid interns are placed in full-time assignments during the summer, and half-time positions during the school year. Employer paid intern stipends must be at least $12/hour. Companies are reimbursed up to $5,600 for each full time intern in the summer and $2,800 for each intern in the fall and spring sessions.

In summer 2015 alone, over 240 college students and recent graduates completed paid internships at more than 150 companies. See a full list of internship placements. Since the program began in 2011, dozens of interns have gone on to full-time jobs at their host companies. 

What are the qualities that make this program such a success? Discussions with participating companies revealed some key factors:

  • Focus paid internship programs on specific industry sectors.

Focusing on specific industries dramatically increases employer buy-in and participation. Companies understand that the program is designed and managed specifically for their unique needs, and that the applicant pool is made up of students with a targeted interest in their industry.

  • Provide consistent, baseline financial support.

The leadership of MassCEC has placed the paid internship program at the core of its workforce strategy, and has expanded the program over the last five years. Employer funds can complement stipend reimbursements, or be used to host additional internships paid for exclusively by employers.

  • Provide “one stop shopping” for a competitive pool of applicants.

The MassCEC provides an online platform for students to apply, and a sortable database of candidates that eligible employers can access (using a passcode) to easily identify a short list of finalists for their specific internships. 

  • Let employers identify, interview, and select candidates on their own.

Although MassCEC provides basic guidelines, the staff does not manage the recruitment and selection process. It is employer-led, and employer-managed. In addition to maximizing employer involvement, this dramatically reduces administrative costs.

  • Use subsidized internships as a floor, not a ceiling.

MassCEC benefits from having a significant fund, with funding made available through the Massachusetts Renewable Energy Trust Fund, to reimburse employers for internship stipends. Certainly, there are many companies that would not host paid interns without such subsidies. As companies become comfortable with the recruitment and management of student talent, more of them are using their own funds to support internships.

JFF is working to help employers and educators better understand how to connect and integrate the demand and supply sides of workforce preparedness. The latest resource, an employer engagement toolkit, was released this week. 

The field can learn much from best practices like this described above. Building an evidence base to document successful outcomes of programs like MassCEC is the next step, and a much-needed one. 

Kevin Doyle is workforce co-chair for the New England Clean Energy Council, the industry association that collaborates with MassCEC on promotion and management of the Massachusetts Clean Energy Internship Program. An independent workforce consultant, Kevin frequently works with JFF, and is currently the lead researcher of JFF’s NatureWORKS: The National Urban Green Infrastructure Workforce Study. Contact Kevin on LinkedIn.

Photography courtesy of Massachusetts Clean Energy Center


Employer Engagement Toolkit