Treat your Interns Right
Years ago, after graduating from college, I accepted an internship in Springfield, Illinois. At the time, I had no way of knowing what a formative and powerful experience that would be – how important it would be for my career and personal development. My internship was only a year long, but I learned more in that year than I had ever hoped. Part of what made my experience so valuable was the confidence my employers had in their selection process and the responsibility they bestowed on me as a result. From day one, I was treated as any other new employee. The intern coordinator worked tirelessly to familiarize me not just with the work we did but with the reasons why we did it. Why was it important? Who was impacted? And, after a few weeks of training, I was sent to represent the office at offsite meetings.
Unpaid internships have recently been placed under the microscope after a federal judge in New York ruled that a company violated minimum wage and overtime laws by not paying its interns. This has ignited a real and meaningful discussion about whether or not unpaid internships provide valuable experience or are merely a way to take advantage of young people in a poor job market. I have heard both sides of this compelling issue. The reality is that even unpaid interns cost a company. When an internship is properly handled, it takes a great deal of staff time. Our intern coordinator traveled throughout the state with us to help us understand different facilities. She took us to lunch with key decision makers. She prepared exercises for us to practice our skills. She coached us. She taught us. She mentored us. Even though I was a paid intern, I realize that the company invested far more in me than just my salary. They invested time, and that made the difference.
One of the best parts of the internship experience – for both the intern and the professional – is getting to be part of a staff. The company I interned for went out of its way to make us feel like a real part of the team. And, part of this was done through team building. Now, it wasn’t always team building in the most traditional sense. We did the trust games. We did the scavenger hunts. But, it was more than that. We spent time together. We went on retreats together. If you employ or work in close proximity to interns, do your best to bring them into the company culture. While the interns will benefit from the positive experience, the professional staff will benefit from the enthusiasm and fellowship of the interns. As a professional, it’s easy to fall into a routine and lose the passion you once had. Interns can bring an energy and curiosity to the office that becomes infectious!
So, why am I telling you all this? Why does the plight of the intern matter to an employer or professional? I have a few motivations. First of all, employers should always be thinking about the future, and today’s intern could be a valuable employee down the road. After all, they already know the company culture! You have already invested time and resources into their training. You have a sense of their ability to grow with the company. Secondly, even if your interns do not stay on at your company, they can go on to become your firm’s biggest cheerleaders. Young people today are in constant communication with one another. Social media has brought us all closer together and as a result we are sharing our experiences. I didn’t wind up staying after my internship, but I have continued to support and advocate for that firm. Likewise, someone who felt that their internship was little more than getting coffee and starring at a wall would likely share their negative experience on Facebook, LinkedIn, Glassdoor, etc.
I say all this because I know the value of a positive internship experiences and I hope others can be as lucky as I am. However, for every story like mine, there are several interns who spend a semester or maybe even a year working in a position and then moving on like nothing happened at all. They go on to other positions or graduate school not having really benefited from their internship experience. As a professional who works regularly with interns, you have the opportunity to make a real and lasting impact on someone’s career. You can provide more than just career experience. You can provide perspective. You can provide mentorship. You can provide inspiration.