THE BLOG

6 Ways To Diversify Your Intern Hires

03/06/2014 02:08 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2014

Building a diverse and inclusive company culture in your workplace requires a strategy that doesn't just focus on full-time employees. Your diversity and inclusion initiatives need to start from the bottom and travel up. That's right -- your internship program should be the foundation for diversifying your recruiting and hiring efforts.

Before you can effectively create an inclusive and diverse pool of intern hires, you should answer this question: Do you see your internship program as being highly diverse? In a survey of more than 300 businesses, only 30 percent said they were satisfied with their internship program's diversity. In addition, while 81 percent of companies said diversity hiring is a priority for them, only 13 percent have a diversity and inclusion manager.

A more diverse class of interns means you'll gain access to unique perspectives, build a better reputation, and most importantly, develop an inclusive company culture. How can anyone argue with those results?

When you're ready to toss out your run-of-the-mill recruiting strategies, here are six ways to diversify your intern hires:

1. Engage students early.

By engaging students early, you open them up to opportunities they may not have been aware of. After all, why would a student choose a particular career path if it's never been justified to them? Let's take the STEM field for example: Only 15 percent of all AP Physicals and Calculus test takers are African American or Latino. While the STEM fields get a lot of attention for their diversity issues, they aren't the only fields that are underrepresented in terms of diversity of interns and full-time hires.

But you can do your part and begin promoting diversity early by partnering your company with schools to get students educated and engaged early. Job shadowing opportunities, high school-focused fellow programs, and educational talks can pave the way. One program doing this already is the Level Playing Field Institute's summer program, SMASH. They hope to intervene before minority students drop off from STEM subjects by engaging with these students and offering expanded opportunities.

2. Make compensation count.

Pay is a powerful aspect of recruiting when it comes to your internship program. If you aren't willing to pay your interns at least the federal minimum wage, don't expect diverse, talented students to give you a second look. Interning is an expensive endeavor, especially for students already swimming in student loan debt.

According to two studies, women and minorities are two groups experiencing the greatest repercussions from student debt. Another 2010 study from the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center found student loan debt levels of $30,500 or higher were more common among 27 percent of African American bachelor's degree recipients, compared to 16 percent of their white counterparts. Diversifying your intern hires means going above and beyond in your recruiting tactics, so why not offer a competitive wage to your interns to help your internship program stand out?

3. Attend diversity career fairs.

Not all career fairs are alike. Simply attending a standard career fair isn't going to ensure you're gaining access to the most diverse student talent available.

Begin seeking out both in-person and virtual diversity career fairs. Whether they are hosted by a university or a diversity-focused organization, bringing your A-game to these awesome recruiting events will turn around your diversity initiatives. You might even decide to partner with a university or organization to get a diversity career fair started near you.

4. Establish a scholarship fund.

Another great way to show your commitment to breaking the status quo with your intern hires is through diversity-focused scholarships. Back in 2012, Etsy did just this after its repeated attempts to hire more female engineers just weren't panning out. Etsy decided to offer grants and public engineering courses to women. By the end of the year, it was able to grow its number of female engineers by a whopping 500 percent.

While you may not be focused on hiring female engineers specifically, developing an educational program and needs-based scholarship fund could be just what your internship program needs.

5. Go international.

What better way to diversify your intern hiring than thinking internationally? There are many reasons to bring on international interns.

For instance, you may gain access to local knowledge and insight in a country where your company has clients. Your international interns also could be great stepping stones for improving your company's ties with diverse customers and clients. Sure, the international hiring process may seem overwhelming at first, but there are many great resources and organizations to help you gain access to international intern candidates.

6. Focus on flexibility.

From developing virtual internships to offering the chance for remote work when necessary, flexibility will help you stand out to more diverse candidates. When it comes to internships, students and recent graduates are often juggling busy schedules filled with school, part- or full-time jobs and family life. Making your internship program flex to accommodate the needs of your diverse interns means you'll be able to attract far more candidates. You may even decide to offer flexible online video interviewing options during the hiring process.

Start strategizing your diverse intern hires now, and you'll quickly reap the benefits.

What are some other ways to reach people of color for your internships, and why is it important?