Making the Most From Interns and Internships

by Andrew E. Schwartz

Interns and internships

Many job applicants want a job but often do not have the prerequisite experience, experience that they can only have by getting a job. Managers who take the chance and hire them may have to spend considerable time and effort training them, only to find the new recruits unsuitable or unhappy with the jobs and looking for employment elsewhere.

One way around this problem for many organizations is an internship program. For professionals in career transition as well as students and recent graduates, such programs provide working experience that otherwise would never be supplied to someone interested in a specific field.

Types of internship structures range from full-time salary, minimum wage, stipend, and volunteer, to those in which the interns pay their employer for the opportunity. Most colleges and universities support internships for students matriculated in the institution or "work study" positions that do not necessarily constitute an internship but do provide financial compensation.

Students are trained at little or no cost to the employer. At the end of the internship, there is no further commitment, unless an employer feels that the intern may be qualified and capable for a full- or part-time job.

The Pluses... and Minuses: The value of offering student internships, the most common form of internships is broad and varied. From the student's viewpoint an internship offers the opportunity to explore career fields before committing to a major or graduate program and to strengthen skills and abilities. For those students who have a clear view of their future path, an internship provides the vehicle for increasing their possibilities of employment in their chosen field by building professional confidence, making contacts in their eventual field of endeavor, and bridging the resume gap between objectives and realities.

Fortunately for aspiring students, an internship program has real value for the many organizations and educational institutions that carry on internships on a regular basis. Interns contribute their energy, enthusiasm and intellectual curiosity to situations that are often in need of a fresh perspective. Many interns, through hobbies, talents and non-formal training, have bona fide knowledge and technical expertise in an area that they are more than eager to apply in the real world. They are ideally suited to take on special projects that a full time-personnel cannot be spared for, or to implement short-term projects for which it would not be cost-effective to permanently cover.

Unfortunately, whatever the level of the internship program, the concept is often either not utilized or under-utilized by organizations. Management is often unable or unwilling to commit time to the training and supervision of interns. It is believed that since interns are neither on salary nor permanent hires, they have little accountability to the organization. It is true, but the failing is very often that of management for not offering the interns projects and responsibilities which are anything other than intellectually menial. Since the intern pool is made up of individuals who need new experiences and challenges, and are seldom satisfied with rote typing and filing, a misplaced intern will leave or be continually late for work.

"Intern Wanted": There are several important concerns in implementing an internship program. Although they apply particularly to student internships, many of the points raised are equally applicable to an internship for professionals in a career change. In implementing an internship program, you need to consider:

Needs? In identifying your needs for the internship, you need to examine the chief responsibilities of the position. And the broader they are, the more flexibility you will be giving yourself and the intern. Decide upon how often you will need the intern. Gauge any time factor related to the responsibilities you are assigning. Remember that the intern will not be as experienced as a regular employee would, he or she will need additional time to get acquainted with computer and other systems, your style of office management, and other on-the-job factors. Next figure your ability to offer a stipend. Not only will offering money bring you more qualified applicants, but it will suitably reward the intern. Many managers find it easy to offer a stipend in terms of travel expenses or living expenses, while also supplying miscellaneous costs.

Advertising. Most college and university career counseling offices contain internship listings or will post advertised internships. Research the universities and colleges in your area to find out where it would be most appropriate to list your internship. For example, if your internship is computer based, it would be wisest to list it in appropriate technical schools. It is also beneficial to find out what departments and fields of study are available in the educational institutions in your area.

Many departments are willing to list internships for students who are majoring in their department or who plan to pursue that field. Be broad-minded in this method of advertising. If your internship involves primarily public relations, consider departments such as psychology, English, advertising, communication, and foreign languages.

When listing the internship position, include several aspects which will present the internship in the most attractive, but honest light.

How To Apply: Application. This is where you give the necessary information on how and where to apply. Include an address and a telephone number, and whether you will be requiring a resume and a cover letter.

Applicant Interviews. Many managers find it is effective to conduct an initial screening by telephone. This enables them to determine if there is a possibility of a good match between the needs of their organization and the applicant's goals. Candidates who remain then participate in in-person interviews focusing on the intern's interest, expectations and skills. Each intern's abilities and requirements will be different, and depending on the individual candidates and the amount of effort and time one is willing to put in, provisions may need to be made to accommodate them. A verbal contract with the intern before the beginning of the internship is the least that should be done. Some managers may prefer a written contract.

Keeping Interest High: Supervision is key to the success of the program. Interns like direction, but don't like to feel they are being constantly checked on. Even this small amount of direction, however, can take a great deal of time. It is important to be willing to set aside this time to give the intern direction. One method that seems to work calls for a briefing at the beginning of each day and a "where-do-we-stand?" briefing at its end. Throughout the day, the manager is on hand to answer any questions that might come up - remember this is a learning experience!

There needs to also be additional time set aside throughout the duration of the internship during which the manager receives feedback from the intern on his or her satisfaction with the assignment and suggestions for future directions. Equally important, interns need to receive feedback on their progress.

They need to know if they are performing to the manager's expectations. Additionally, many interns have chosen to keep diaries and time logs documenting their involvement. These can be reviewed at the conclusion of that person's internship.

Motivation. It is important to understand what normally motivates interns. Interns want to feel as though they are a member of the team -- partners with other team members. Employees need to understand this and accept the intern.

Limiting intern assignments to routine, mechanical, or uninteresting tasks will also limit the program. Interns thrive on challenge and managers need to have respect for their talents and capabilities.

An intern wants to feel welcome but not prejudged. This can best be done on the part of the manager through the provision of a desk and telephone--and anything else that will make the intern feel comfortable. Likewise it is important for interns to know operational procedures, what the boundaries are, and the framework within which they must work.

Interns need to have a sense of involvement in planning objectives. They need to feel that their ideas have had a fair hearing. The goals and objectives arrived at must be within reach and make sense to interns. Progress must also be observable to them, since one of the most motivating and exciting factors in an internship is having the feeling that one is making a difference. For this to be the case, they need to be trained to do the job they have undertaken. In addition, remember that everyone responds well to constructive criticism. Finally, interns tend to think globally. They want to know not only the specific job they will perform and the scope of this job but also its relationship to other jobs.

Andrew E. Schwartz, CEO, A.E. Schwartz -&- Associates of Boston, MA a comprehensive management, leadership and consulting organization offering over 40 skills specific training programs and practical solutions to today's business challenges. For more information on this program go to

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