Being fairly new to the academic world, I get to experience firsts just about every semester. Just recently, I had my first opportunity to be a faculty supervisor of a student’s internship. I’d had interns work for me in my earlier career as a manager, so it was an interesting exercise for me to vicariously see what the interns (two of them, in fact) were experiencing from this side of things. Here are a few observations:
First, there are two parties getting the opportunity to take a test drive. The intern gets a taste for a work environment in general, and a taste for the company in particular. They get to give some serious consideration to questions like these:
- Is this something I would be interested in doing week after week, year after year?
- Do I feel engaged or bored?
- Is this something that could provide a career path I would want to pursue, or would it be a dead end?
- How do I feel about this particular company?
- Do I see supervisors treating their staff with respect?
- Is the environment nurturing or is it toxic?
The company, on the other hand, should get the immediate benefit of some low-cost talent that is anxious to make a positive impression. In addition, what a great opportunity it is to have a low-risk option for determining whether the company would want to convert an intern into a full-time employee. As a manager in the workforce, I always loved having the opportunity to take an intern or a contractor out for the proverbial spin for a few weeks or months; it definitely boosted my success rate on hiring decisions.
Second, it’s important to set and manage expectations. Is the intern to be given the chance to rotate among different jobs or different areas of the company, or will they do the same thing for the duration in order to develop a level of competency with a particular skill or task? Or, are they just an extra pair of hands for a period of time to fill a short term need? There is no one right answer here, as every situation is different. But, the employer should have a plan for how the intern is to be used and, hopefully, developed. In this context, I explained to my students how, as a manager, I always had to manage the often conflicting priorities of getting the work done to satisfy the needs of the company versus developing staff to satisfy the needs of the employees. In a perfect world, those things can align and staff development takes place organically as the work gets done. In reality, the former tends to supersede the latter. It’s incumbent upon a good manager to ensure they are taking the employees’ interests and developmental needs to heart while still meeting their fiduciary responsibilities to the company. For an internship to be successful, both the employer and the intern should be on the same page with regard to expectations regarding the intern’s role during the internship period.
Third, regardless of the duties of the internship and the relationship between the supervisor and the intern, the intern gets the opportunity to experience a number of workplace dynamics. What’s it like when systems and processes allow bottlenecks to occur? What’s it like to have a fellow team member not carry their share of the load? What’s it like when there is a crunch and the workload overcomes the available staff, or, conversely, when there is a lull? What’s it like when the company is experiencing growth and everyone seems to be excited and engaged, and what’s it like when there is a contraction and people are worried whether they are going to have a job next month? These are valuable exposures for the intern. From the company’s perspective, it’s of value to see how the intern reacts under varying circumstances. If there is a lull in their own work, do they offer to help out a teammate, do they constructively learn a new task or take advantage of a training opportunity, or do they coast since the pressure is off for the moment? Again, these are valuable observations for the company.
I am happy to say that both of my students considered their internship experience to be very positive. And, since both were invited to extend their working relationship beyond the end of the term, it’s obvious the company was happy with them. I frequently encourage students to pursue one or more internships, to take that test drive. I also want to encourage businesses to make the effort and provide meaningful internships to students. It takes some work, but the payoff could be tremendous. Consider what a very young Alexander Hamilton said in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton lyric in the song, My Shot:
I prob’ly shouldn’t brag, but dag, I amaze and astonish…
The problem is I got a lot of brains but no polish…
I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal, tryin’ to reach my goal.
Who knows? You might be uncovering a diamond in the rough who, while you’re helping them reach their goal could provide great value to your company for years to come!
Michael Cross is an assistant professor of Management at Columbia College. After 35 years in the business world, he now teaches management courses in the Robert W. Plaster School of Business.