Trends in Traineeships

In 1982 I started my career as a trainee. Philips Electronics wanted to hire some fresh forces for the personnel department and they thought a traineeship was the solution. After a tough selection process four eager high potentials were selected, and I was one of the lucky four. In 1994 I was the last of the four musketeers to leave this big multinational (read: “30 years in HR, part 2: Trainee”).
Many big companies think a traineeship is necessary to hire high potentials. Not many companies are able to successfully design and sustain traineeships. Often the pattern is as follows. It starts with a big campaign. “We are looking for the future top!”. Out of a large group of candidates four to ten trainees are selected. The main ingredients of the traineeship: training, job rotation and coaching. As the expectations of the trainees are very high, the reality of the working life in the big company is often disappointing. Sometimes the trainees are not so welcome. Departments are not very keen to have a trainee, as they know they will leave after a couple of months. The promised frequent contact with top managers turns out to be an annual Q&A with one of the board members, often not the CEO, as he or she is busy busy busy. Often it is not clear who feels responsible for the trainees. As a result many traineeships start with a lot of poeha, and after a couple of years they starve a natural death. If the organisation is lucky, a few trainees stay and have a good career. The exception: organisations where nearly all new employees start as trainees, mainly in professional services (consultancy, law firms).

Time to design new traineeships.

10 trends in traineeships

1. An open and transparent selection process

Be clear about the criteria, and open up application for everybody who qualifies. Also encourage people who already work in your organisation to apply.

2. More diversity

Often traineeships are filled with the usual suspects. Students with high marks, ambitious, intelligent but also very sociable (extraverts), lots of extracurricular activities, international experience and also some work as a volunteer. Clones of the idealised self image of the current senior leaders. It might help to create a more diverse pool, with some unusual suspects. Watch The Intern, with Robert de Niro.

3. Individualisation/ Tailored programs

The more you are able to offer developmental opportunities that fit the needs of the trainees, the better you will be able to keep them connected to your organization. No standard program that applies to all the trainees. No macho selection criteria (“Trainees should be international mobile at all times’).

4. Focus the training on on-the-job training, supported by e-learning

This is connected to point 3. People learn best when they really need something. If you are going to live and work in Spain, you’d better learn Spanish. If you have to make a business plan for a new unit, you want to learn how to make a business plan very quickly (and not wait until the module is scheduled in the “Young Managers Program”).
Also read: “The Future of HR part 4: What if anything did we learn“.

5. Change the focus

The focus of most traineeships is: “What should we learn the trainees?”. Think about changing the focus to “What can we learn from the trainees?”.

6. Give the trainees real jobs and real assignments

To frequent job rotations are not very helpful, as it does not help the trainees to be able to deliver real results. Give the trainees real jobs and  assignments. Work them hard!

7. A longer time horizon (trainees for life!)

Do not stop the trainee program after two-three years. People can be a trainee as long as they qualify and perform.

8. Clear responsibilities at the top

For HR it is often difficult to pull the right levers. Don’t make HR responsible, but make one of the senior managers responsible for the traineeship. If each of the Board members takes responsibility for two/ three trainees, you have a nice pool to start with.

9. Performance Consulting

Good people want to become better, and they are very motivated to improve. Very granular measurement and observations are necessary to give feedback that can help people to become better. Trainees deserve regular and concrete feedback, based on measurement and direct observations (as other people do).

10. Applying Talent Analytics

I have seen trainees for life, who were never really measured, and who had always cleverly moved to the next assignment before the going got tough. If you invest in a pool of trainees, also invest in talent analytics. Who are the successful people in the traineeship? Why? What does it take to adapt the program to increase the success of others? What are the contextual factors influencing success? Who are the coaches behind the successful trainees? An so on. You people analytics team will know how to gather and analyse the data.

Traineeships can be successful if organisations are willing to take a new approach. Key words: open, transparent, not exclusive, tailor made and result oriented.


An earlier version of this article was published as: “7 elements of new traineeships”.

Also read: “Trainees are as task oriented as their boss”

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