From Intern to Trainer

I saw the news last week in a CareerBuilder job forecast that summer jobs are returning at a faster pace this year, and sometimes are even paying beyond the federal minimum hourly wage of $7.25.

Talk of summer jobs led my mind back to my days as a summer intern. I interned at so many different publications and media outlets that the probably now-retired features editor at The Gainesville Sun, where I interned during summer 1999, laughed while looking at my resume and said: “It looks like you’re the queen of the internships.”

I didn’t think it was unusual that by then I already had been an intern twice—first in 1995 for a brief three-week stint as an assistant at the National Women’s Political Caucus (as part of a political science class at the University of Alabama) and in 1996 as a Website writer for a hospital where my mother was one of the vice presidents. I was not paid for either of those positions, but I was able to get school credit for the first of these internships, and was able to put the second on my resume.

The Gainesville Sun internship stands out in my mind because I made a large contribution, with the newspaper publishing 11 of my articles in 10 weeks of work. And it also stands out in my mind for the lack of support, and even ingratitude, I received from my manager, the features editor I noted earlier. She warned me on my first day that I would need to be proactive and self-sufficient because interns there were liable to be left “dangling on a string.” Despite producing 11 articles for publication, I nearly missed out on getting school credit because of a lukewarm review by that editor—she was concerned because I was timid about driving around areas I was unfamiliar with, and didn’t like the way I structured my articles—and yet she kept using and benefiting from my work! I fought back, and did end up getting credit, but that experience still sticks with me whenever I hear about the use of interns at companies.

In today’s world, paying interns—not just giving them school credit—has become much more common. In some states, I’ve heard it’s illegal not to pay them anything. But something that may not have changed is the attitude that greets interns: that the company is doing them a favor, rather than the favor being mutual, or even the other way around.

In addition to the work the intern completes for the company, the management of interns can be a lesson and growth opportunity for managers or those who someday will be managers. Interns also can become trainers for your workforce.

Interns often become the responsibility of an employee who is not yet a manager. I’ve noticed that usually the intern is looked after, and hopefully, taught, by the least senior person on staff—often the person who was most recently herself an intern. Since that person is unlikely to have any previous management experience, supervising the intern can be a great opportunity for growth, if it is taken seriously. To make the experience more impactful, you or your Human Resources department could create forms or templates especially for interns, including onboarding materials and reviews that the intern supervisor can present/administer over the course of the summer. The intern supervisor’s boss also can check in with her during the summer to see what she’s learning about being a manager. The boss can ask about areas she finds challenging, what has surprised her, and, at the end of the summer, what she plans to do differently when the next intern arrives. After a few summers of managing an intern, that employee may be ready for a more advanced position in which she supervises a full-time, permanent employee.

Along with offering management practice, interns are repositories of all the latest information. As typically the very youngest of your workforce, they often know about the most cutting-edge techniques or practices in your field—what’s so new it’s just now being taught to students in your field. They also probably know far more about optimizing digital technology and social media than any Baby Boomer, Generation Xer, or even Generation Yer at your company. Maybe even more importantly, they know about the most current zeitgeist. They know what’s coming soon in trends affecting your field.

For instance, in the world of product and marketing, they can tell you about the products they and their friends use in their everyday lives, including how and why they use those products, and the kinds of commercials and advertising they most enjoy. You could make use of this expertise by having your marketing and product developers interview the intern(s). You also could create a set-up in which once a week the intern isn’t just interviewed, but teaches one or more of your employees about something (anything) that will help them do their jobs better.

Interns can be an invaluable resource as they chip in, doing work at no or low cost to your company, but they can be even more invaluable than you realize if you think of them equally as instructors.

How do you make use of interns at your company? How can trainers make corporate internships programs a learning experience, not just for the intern(s), but for employees, too?