I interned for about a year before I got my first full time job. Looking back, I see just how rewarding it was. Not financially, of course, but I certainly feel the investment in time paid off. The people I worked for are still friends, and I still turn to them for advice on everything from campaign strategy to eggplant recipes. I never felt exploited and when I started my professional career I felt ready for it in a way that study alone would never have let me.
Now, it’s five years on and I’ve had the privilege of managing several bright young women (always women, the boys must be off somewhere getting paid) in intern programs. Here are my tips for ensuring that bringing an intern into the team works for everyone.
Know the law
The Fair Work Ombudsman’s internship factsheet states that “The main benefit of a genuine work placement or internship should flow to the person doing the placement.” This means that the main purpose of hiring an intern is to help train the next generation of workers in your industry. If you’re hoping an intern can help share the load, you’re better off hiring an assistant.
Define the terms
At the recruitment stage establish what each candidate hopes to learn and work out how you can help. Lay out carefully what the intern role involves and try as best you can to make it fit the kind of job your intern will graduate into. Every task has to teach them something. Fetching coffee or folding 1000 A4 sheets into 1000 DL envelopes is off limits.
That being said, perhaps the most valuable thing I learnt in my year of interning was simply how to function in an office. I learnt how to talk to people, how to present ideas, how to work a damned fax machine. I learnt to get stuck in and get the job done without any “that’s not in my job description” preciousness. If coffee had to be fetched for a client, I volunteered to fetch it. Need someone to wait on hold with the courier company for an hour? I’m your girl; I can fold those letters while I wait. It’s those skills, as much as HTML or budgeting that I count on every day. The difference is that as an intern I wasn’t compelled by my bosses to fetch coffee simply because I was an intern, I did it because it needed to be done.
As an intern, I would have gladly spent a day at my supervisors’ heels, begging for guidance and praise like a six month old labrador. You may find that an intern not only requires more training, but also more recognition. In employment, the worker has their paycheque to remind them they are valued. An intern, someone who is just finding their feet, has no such reassurance. To maintain morale while preventing the training of an intern from eating into your productivity set aside time for training and outside of that encourage independent work.
Be sensitive to student poverty
My year of interning was the poorest of my life. I’d be working by day, applying for jobs at night and doing trial shifts at cafes on weekends. While some interns might be sitting pretty on their parents’ dimes, many will be in the same position I was. This doesn’t mean that you have to buy them lunch but being aware that the professional lifestyle comes with a price tag that an intern can barely afford is important. Expecting them to go out to lunch or shout coffees is an extravagance they probably can’t cover so be considerate.
Internships can feel like the job interview that never ends. Sometimes this is accurate and, like a pot of gold, there’ll be a job at the end of it. But this is never a guarantee. Be upfront about the intern’s chances of progressing to paid employment. By limiting their expectations, you can take the pressure off and help him or her make the most of the opportunity to train. If you’re not going to keep them on but you’re still impressed, do them a favour and suggest other places to apply, or email their CV to a few contacts.