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Done Correctly, Your Internship Program Could Generate Serious Cash Five reasons you should see these young up-and-comers as more than mere coffee fetchers.

By Heather R. Huhman Edited by Dan Bova

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

At the IMA Financial Group in Denver, public relations manager James Williams knows firsthand the value of a great intern.

Related: 3 Ways to Make an Internship Invaluable, Regardless of Pay

Last summer, Williams and his office got to enjoy treats an intern made as an expression of that young woman's passion for gluten-free baking. When an IMA sales rep asked for out-of-the-box pitch ideas, Williams, inspired by the intern's recent creation, asked, "Why don't we shoot a video analogy about how making gluten-free banana bread is kind of like picking an insurance broker?"

Williams and his intern then wrote a script comparing each ingredient to a different component of the complex broker decision. The intern subsequently baked two loaves of bread: one for the video and one for the presentation.

"We got the account, with the intern's expertise," Williams told me. "We highlighted her skills by using them in a way that would benefit the company, our team and her future. She used the example for her portfolio to help her get a job working for an ad agency specializing in organic food brands."

Related: 8 Ways to Create a Strong Internship Program for the Summer

Still not convinced of the value interns can bring to growing companies? Here are five reasons you should see these young up-and-comers as more than mere coffee fetchers:

1. Create a reliable talent pipeline.

When the opportunity arises, Circa Interactive in San Diego often hires past interns into full-time positions.

"We know that if they are a good fit culturally, and thrive in their position, it wouldn't make any sense to go outside and hire someone without any experience or training with our company," Caroline Khalili, public relations manager at Circa Interactive, told me. "It's a win-win situation."

Build a lasting relationship with your own interns from the beginning. Check in with interns throughout their experience; ensure they are gaining value from their internship. Keep track of interns' post-grad goals to help attract them to a full-time position when one opens that aligns with those goals.

Tools like Phenom People can help create this pipeline by building candidate profiles so hiring managers can target and nurture top talent, which may well include past interns.

Also, keep in touch with interns who go back to school so they'll be excited to return full-time after graduating. Reaching out on a regular basis with company insights, full-time job opportunities and exclusive information can give you an effective way to keep former interns in the pipeline.

2. Develop employees at all levels.

Full-time employees can also develop leadership skills by managing interns. This means it's not just the students who are learning, but also employees who work for the company already.

"I've had an employee who was at the company for eight months, leading four interns on a project, and he really thrived in the leadership role," Steve Benson, CEO at Badger Maps in San Francisco, told me. "I wouldn't have known to fast-track his career in the same way if I hadn't seen him do so well as a leader -- and he wouldn't have had the opportunity without the internship program."

When shaping an internship program, think about how to use it to develop both the interns and the employees leading them. Create growth opportunities for full-time employees who don't typically lead projects, by allowing them to do so with a team of interns. Creating a new chain of mentoring will strengthen the skills of everyone involved.

3. Bridge the skills gap.

As talent becomes increasingly difficult to find, companies can leverage internship programs to groom candidates for those in-demand positions.

A March 2016 PayScale survey of about 64,000 managers and 14,000 recent grads found that while 87 percent of recent grads said they felt prepared for a full-time job, only 50 percent of managers felt the same about them.

"Implementing an internship program allows you to secure candidates early on and help them develop the skills they need to succeed in your company," Joyce Russell, president of Adecco Staffing USA in Charlotte, N.C., told me.

Pair interns with a mentor in their desired career path to effectively develop them more directly. Ask the mentors to evaluate what skills the intern currently doesn't have but will need to be successful. Identify these gaps and opportunities at the start of the internship program to make sure these people get the most out of their experience.

4. Innovative problem-solving.

"It's good for us to see what the younger generation is capable of, as well as to prepare them to be great future leaders, who may one day come back to us for jobs right out of school," Terence Chatmon, CEO of FCCI in Atlanta, told me.

Because Chatmon's company influences other companies, its staffers strive to help future leaders understand what's important to their careers. They teach their interns that their early jobs are about not only the bottom line, but about forming strong relationships and other core values.

"We love to plant seeds for future leaders to share a different perspective on how a company can be led," Chatmon said.

Present interns with challenges similar to those that full-time employees do, and ask them to come up with new solutions. Alternatively, ask the interns to identify a problem they think they can solve. Then, ask them to develop, execute and present their solution to the team.

Giving interns a more open-ended project, in addition to their day-to-day tasks, can spark innovation.

5. Helps your bottom line.

"All sales interns at Seismic have a quota. They need to make their numbers just as the full-time inside reps do," Ed Calnan, co-founder and president of Seismic, in Boston, told me.

With this goal in mind, Seismic teaches interns the tactical parts of an effective sales strategy, how the company functions and what the full sales process looks like. Interns then have the same motivation to perform and hit their quotas as full-time employees do.

Interns at Seismic who are successful tend to be those who have a knack for sales; they'll then often end up with an offer to work full-time at the company, which was recently ranked 18th by Entrepreneur for company culture.

"We've structured the program so interns can make a sizable impact to the bottom line and have their efforts felt," Calnan said. "We've had a full summer internship program for three years, and already interns have sourced $500,000 in new revenue for the company. The program pays for itself."

The lesson here? Don't be afraid to give interns responsibilities that impact your bottom line. Most interns, especially recent graduates, look at their experience as not just a resume-builde, but also a way into the workforce.

Related: 5 Reasons You Need Interns to Build Your Business

They're willing to handle the work of a full-time employee -- so let them.

Heather R. Huhman

Career and Workplace Expert; Founder and President, Come Recommended

Waldorf, Md.-based Heather R. Huhman is a career expert, experienced hiring manager and president of Come Recommended, the PR solution for job search and HR tech companies. She writes about issues impacting the modern workplace.

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