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Strategies to Convert Engineering Interns Into Full-Time Employees

Updated: Jun 5, 2023

An engineer studies his machinery

Only half of all interns (56% to be exact) return to their employer following an internship. This means nearly half of all related spending (recruiting, student wages, and training time) walks out the door when that intern takes their skills, newly-acquired company knowledge, and talents to another organization.

If your company runs an internship program for your engineering team, conversion from intern to full-time is most likely among the top reasons behind the internship. The top reason for the internship will differ by company. Supporting busy engineers, improving the diversity of your organization (as college enrollment becomes more diverse your organization can too), or recruiting your future leaders are just a few of the reasons we hear in conversations with employers.

If you can expect, on average, to convert only one in two interns to full-time hires, what does your company need to do to be above the average? The challenges in converting an engineering intern to a full-time hire do tend to have a few common areas of concern across employers. Here are a few key strategies to handle those challenges and convert more engineering interns to full-time employees.

Strategies to Convert Engineering Interns Into Full-Time Employees

  1. Ensure your interns and your company culture match before extending offers and onboarding employees that aren’t right for your company.

  2. Align your employee requisition process with your intern timeline. Having no open positions available will lead to high-potential hires looking elsewhere.

  3. Make the hiring process transparent. Show interns a clear path into your organization by connecting them with mentors and showing them the entire onboarding process.

  4. Build and maintain a positive work experience. Create projects that are challenging, ensure intern managers have the tools to be successful, and include helpful resources to make sure interns can be productive.

employees working together

4 problems challenging your conversion rates & how to solve them

Why focus specifically on engineering hires? Engineering as an educational path is incredibly competitive. The classes themselves are challenging, meaning only a fraction of the millions of college students complete engineering programs. Students from top universities are challenged in their classes, making them incredibly competent and ready engineers when they enter the workforce. The competition for top-level talent is a must-win for employers.

Another reason engineering interns are highly sought after (and critical to converting) is that many engineering interns get to work on real, value-driving projects for their employers during an internship. This means a well-trained intern can be productive for your company on day one if they convert to a full-time hire. These hires boost productivity, better support your managers, and reduce training time. All massive boosts to your organization.

Your company invests time, manager hours, capital, and organizational resources into your engineering interns. Your internship program should be bringing talented future engineers into your talent pipeline for open full-time roles. Let’s do what we can to get them in the door.

1. Company culture mismatch

two professionals working on a computer

Gen-Z candidates report culture alignment as the number 1 reason for choosing a role (above pay and location). This departure from previous generations has many employers adapting how they engage younger generations entering the workforce today. An employee who connects with the company culture is more engaged, more productive, and more likely to stick around.

Simply put, if a candidate doesn’t feel they align with your company’s culture (or at least the culture they experience while at your company) they’ll look for a better fit elsewhere. Your company culture is how managers communicate with their followers, how leadership shares updates, and how downturns (and upturns) are handled across the organization. It’s the everyday interactions between employees at every level of the organization. This includes how interns experience your company culture.

To find out which candidates fit your culture, make sure interns feel a connection to your company and the members of your team. The problem for you is making sure the right candidates aren’t scared off by a culture that isn’t truly representative of your organization. Opportunities outside of an intern’s team and personal projects can put your larger company culture on display. Consider setting up informational interviews for interns to connect with employees in other departments and at various levels of the company. Giving your interns a few “starter” questions to ask these employees can be helpful. Questions that help candidates learn from other employees how they see the culture will be far stronger at sharing your company culture than a welcome basket or a corporate email from the head of HR. Create opportunities for interns to connect with and talk with employees across your organization. A real connection is the best communicator of company culture.

As a note, a misaligned culture fit isn’t always bad. After all, your goal as an employer is finding the right hires that fit your organizational culture. If you have a strong, well-defined culture and you follow our suggestions to share that culture with interns, an identified poor fit is actually a win for both the candidate and your company. It means you can focus on the candidates that want to be with you.

2. Your internship timeline doesn’t match your hiring cycles

employees having a meeting

Intern to full-time is a long journey. Candidates are first recruited for your internship program all before the pressure is on to convert to full-time.

When your intern program is done well, your company still might be waiting six to twelve months to welcome your new hire on their first day. That’s a three to six-month investment just to wait another six to twelve months. Depending on the timing of your interns’ arrival and their graduation date, your hiring cycle needs to be flexible.

One major reason we hear from students on selecting a new role at a different company than the company they interned at is “I wanted to come back, but the company didn’t know when roles would be available.” Especially for engineering students, the timeline to recruit and hire top talent is getting more and more condensed. Without an extended and signed offer, that student may still court new offers.

This timeline challenge isn’t just a frustration for students. We hear the same thing from companies. “I can’t hire an engineering candidate in August when their internship ends because my company doesn’t decide on hiring space until October.” is a direct quote from a manufacturing company in Wisconsin we chatted with. By the time October rolls around, good chances are, that student has been scooped up by another organization. Does this sound familiar to you?

Whenever possible, have your offers planned to align with the end of your internship program. This will most likely require a reshuffling of your hiring timelines and may cause some challenges in a partial or at least one internship program, but will pay off in the following year (or maybe sooner). Create a communication strategy between technical managers and your HR team to establish a cadence for reviewing candidates ahead of your program end dates. Technical managers will be the ones best equipped to recommend a hire is made to fit the team culture and the technical needs of the open role - give them the tools to communicate that to HR.

It won’t be perfect. You’ll typically have more interns that open full-time roles. That’s the point of an internship. Build a “keep warm” strategy to engage these candidates regularly. Valuable shared content, open opportunities for applications or networking, and a strong brand message will keep your company in the mind of your past interns. Do this to boost your chances of an intern returning to your organization (even if they do leave for a summer or two).

3. Interns see an unclear path into your organization

industry professional teaching on a board

Your hires want to know where this career could lead them. Show them the path to success at your organization.

Besides supporting project work, your company most likely uses the internship as an extension of the interview process for your full-time hires. Over the 10-12 weeks of an internship (up to 20+ for co-ops), your hiring managers are sifting out whether the intern fits at your company. For your interns, the internship program is a test drive for an intern to see how they’d fit at the organization. If there’s not a clear path for how they can become a full-time hire, odds are your interns won’t be excited about coming back.

According to LinkedIn, a whopping 76% of Gen Z see learning and development as a key driver in their advancement. If you want to retain top engineering talent you need to take a hard look at your onboarding and employee engagement strategy for both your interns and full-time employees. If your organization makes the path from entry-level engineer, to senior engineer, and beyond opaque, you’re hurting your chances of converting top talent. Learning and development are not only key to unlocking talented hires, your investment in opening the door to future promotions and responsibilities will increase your business’s bottom line.

Solving this challenge is a team effort. To show interns where their careers may be at different steps requires buy-in from the employees currently in those positions. Consider connecting your interns with a manager AND a mentor at the company. Preferably, their mentor was an intern who successfully transitioned into the company. This mentor should have 3-5 years at the company and if possible, may have just gotten their first promotion. This opens the door for helpful conversation from intern to someone who’s a few steps ahead of them in their career journey.

4. Your interns have a poor workplace experience

How your engineering intern experiences their internship will be a massive driver of their return to your company. Give them a rewarding, engaging experience for the best chance at bringing that candidate on board.

For your engineering interns, the work your interns do should challenge them to apply the skills learned in the classroom. If the work component of their internship doesn’t hit the mark, they may look elsewhere. For a busy engineering manager, setting up projects for an intern without knowing their interests, skill level, or work ethic can be a challenging ask. Even more so, when intern projects sometimes need to be created at the time of hire (around the fall or spring career fair when the internship doesn’t start for another four to nine months from then) can feel like a total guessing game when a project will completely change by then.

A busy engineer is a recipe for a poor internship experience. Your intern managers should also be excited to have a young mind on the team to challenge convention and contribute meaningfully to the team. Prepare your managers to be helpful by giving them a few workshops on internship management; support their work by providing flexibility in their workload.

You should be collecting feedback from your engineering interns to understand how they see the program. If they like the work, they’ll be more likely to stay. Team projects with a fun, or culture-based effort can also be a great way to ensure interns have meaningful work to complete while on internship. These projects can also be designed months in advance and not be tied directly to the results of ongoing, value-driving projects at the organization. Depending on your organization, this might be redesigning a product showcase for an upcoming event, running a design-thinking product sprint around some concept projects, or helping plan an event. Try getting current or former interns together for a brainstorming session around the idea of creating a group internship project. This can also be a great way to engage your current employees and continue building a great culture!

If increased conversion is something your team is working on, get your program started today so you can start seeing benefits as soon as possible. If you set goals to increase your conversion and act on those goals you’ll begin seeing results almost immediately. Even if conversion as a metric is only tracked months after your internship program, the benefits will extend to creating a better internship program. Sharing your company culture, building a strong internship group project, and engaging your current employees will go a long way to increasing your conversion rates from intern to full-time.

Looking to create a more positive internship experience for your interns? We’ve got you covered. Keep reading with ***“4 ways to create a meaningful internship experience”.

Internship on Demand bridges the gap between college and career through hands-on work experience at today's most innovative companies. We design, build, and manage tailored pre-internships to reduce recruiting spend, cut training time, and improve intern conversion and employee retention.

Get in touch with our team to learn more today →


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