Strengthening the Student Talent Pipeline

by Sep 28, 2021

Crossposted from the Herald-Times, this is Executive Director Pat East’s regular column.

When it comes to talent, most organizations in Bloomington agree: talent is critical, and we need more of it. Meanwhile, every year, thousands of students enroll at Indiana University and Ivy Tech, where they develop world-class skills. How can we retain more of their talent after they graduate? How can we design meaningful professional experiences during their student years that benefit local businesses and showcase attractive career opportunities? In other words, how do we strengthen the student talent pipeline?

Internships are the classic student work experience that should build that pipeline, and local resources like the IU Walter Center already do an incredible job of connecting students to opportunities. For organizations with small staff and lean budgets like The Mill, interns are an essential resource. For example, interns perform due diligence work for Flywheel Fund, our microfund for investing in startups. Some of our interns are Cox scholars: talented students who’ve earned a full-ride scholarship to IU and work at a nonprofit for 5 to 15 hours a week as part of the program. In the past, we’ve also had interns from Ivy Tech and even Bloomington High School North. In short, we try to take advantage of interns whenever we can.

We think there’s more our community can do, however, to create internship experiences that are more attractive to students, bring their talents to more companies, and forge a stronger future talent pipeline.

In Indianapolis, Techpoint’s robust internship program, called Xtern, attracts thousands of applicants annually, exposes students to the city’s attractions, and helps retain talent after graduation. Recruitment usually starts in the fall for summer internships in the following year, but connecting students to jobs is only the first step. When the internships start, Xtern then houses students in the same apartment complex and also provides professional development, city immersion, and civic engagement support services.

Two important things happen. First, the interns form strong friendships because they’re literally living in the same place. And when they do their job search after school, they start thinking about where their friends will be working and how they can stick together. Second, they become deeply familiar with city life outside of campus. They find favorite hangouts and learn which companies offer the careers and benefits they seek. When their friends choose careers in Indy, they do, too.

We can replicate these critical program elements in Bloomington. In our smaller job market, we will also need to get creative and collaborate with employers to design internships that meet real business needs while offering meaningful career experience. And frankly, to get the best results, to compete for the best talent, we’re going to have to pay interns.

Here we can take a note from Rose-Hulman. They developed their internship program in coordination with their mentor network: they connect interns with opportunities at alumni companies. And what Rose-Hulman eventually realized was that students who are ambitious, who later found their own companies—that top talent seeks, and gets, paid internships.

Fortunately, there are resources to help. For example, Indiana INTERNnet, a program through the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, can pay half of the wages for an intern. As The Mill goes into our 2022 budgeting season, we’re planning on walking the talk and paying our interns. Even though The Mill is only three years old, we’re a mature-enough organization and our finances are healthy enough that we can start paying students for their labor.

We also want to help our Mill member companies leverage student talent to grow their businesses, and to showcase to students the different nature of the career opportunities that startups offer. To build a successful program, we’ll need to support both ends of the process. First, we’ll need to help emerging startups create attractive opportunities. Second, we’ll need to help skilled students connect to them easily.

One way we can do this is by rolling up several “micro internships” across multiple startups into one longer-term position, and using The Mill as an administrative hub. Startups would propose projects in specific areas that require particular skills. The Mill would select projects, bundle them, recruit and hire interns, and run the financial backend. The IU Walter Center does a phenomenal job of helping us write position descriptions and finding folks for The Mill’s regular internships, and they could be invaluable partners for this program, too.

The result? Startups don’t have to worry about creating “busy work” to fill out a whole internship; they’ll get help just for their most critical projects, and they won’t have to fuss with recruitment. Meanwhile, students will submit just one application to get exposure to a variety of different companies and interesting projects—again, with no tedious “busy work.” They might work 5 to 15 hours a week during the fall and spring semesters, and up to 40 hours during the summer. That’s pretty attractive to ambitious students who want to learn fast, get their fingers in lots of different projects, and have a variety of experiences.

Let’s say a graphic design intern is available for 40 hours a week during the summer. We could chunk up their internship into multiple projects. For the first four weeks, they might work for Civic Champs on an annual benefits report. The second four weeks, they could work for Future Wonder on a website redesign. Then the last four weeks, they’d work on a logo and identity for a new program at The Mill.

This is just one example of how we might think creatively about internships and leverage local resources to benefit our community and our students more deeply. If we recognize the opportunity and build programs and partnerships strategically, we can strengthen our student talent pipeline—and our economic future.