December 6, 2010
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What the intern really thinks about your company

Guest post by Zack Sandor-Kerr

Opinions about interns are about as many and diverse as the sweaty-palmed young-guns who clamour for available positions. As far as I have read, however, most of those opinions come from the top. From the decision makers who hire the interns.

I’m not one of those guys. I’m the intern. Well, former intern actually. Over the past 13 weeks, I have worked in Burson-Marsteller’s Sydney office. I’ll begin by saying my experience was exemplary: challenging, enriching, filled with teachable moments and opportunities to take initiative and flex my PR muscles. I received mentorship, respect and the trust from an impressive batch of PR pros.

Not all interns are so lucky.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about interns and internships. I’ve made a number of observations.

I suspect that everyone reading this has had a horrible intern experience. I empathize. Under-performers are out there. I also appreciate that interns represent a significant investment in your organization’s time, money, resources and sometimes, patience. I further understand that you don’t have the budget to pay them as much as they would like; or the time to hold their hands through every challenge.

I get it. There are a lot of dynamics around hiring us.

Employers are thinking about interns.

I can also tell you from my own experience that interns are thinking about their employers. Just as you consider whether you would hire us, we consider whether we would say yes.

So what does the intern really think about your company?

1. Your intern has something to contribute, value to add, ideas to table.

I leapt at every opportunity to sit in on a brainstorm, strategy session, or client briefing. I listened to my colleagues’ client challenges and sent them articles that I thought would be of interest. I shared what I knew about SEO with the team when a new website was launched.

And a funny thing happened. I saw those brainstorm ideas, strategic insights, questions, observations, blog URLs and pointers trickling into client briefs, pitches, action plans and search results.

My colleagues trusted me with sitting in. They took a calculated risk by introducing me to the client.  Their trust was repaid with a fresh perspective and stuff they could use.

When interns are given the time and space to shine, they are more likely to do so. Going into my internship, I knew that I would have to build media lists and make photocopies.  I hoped it wasn’t all I would be asked to do. It wasn’t. My colleagues recognized that I had more to add than just warming a seat and filing. That recognition got the best out of me.

2. Your intern doesn’t expect a lot.

Your intern doesn’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) expect a gold star for every error-free keystroke. Your intern doesn’t (or shouldn’t) expect to be invited to every single meeting and high-level business strategy session.

Your intern doesn’t (or shouldn’t) expect the world from you; however there are a couple of things that are reasonable for the intern to expect:

To receive mentorship, guidance, direction, feedback. We are here to learn. Please give us that opportunity. We are hungry for knowledge, interested in new experiences and eager to meet new challenges.  If we’re not being trained, briefed, or mentored, then how can you as an employer ever hope to get the best out of us?

To feel like a part of the team.  We are around only for a short time, but we still want to feel involved. Employees may tend to view this transience as an excuse not to get to know the new face. Why both getting to know the intern when they’re going to be out the door in a few weeks time anyway? Employers will get more out of interns who are welcomed, valued, and respected. Encourage your employees to invite the intern out for lunch and out for drinks. Include them in relevant meetings and email threads.

To have a chance to prove himself or herself. We want to excel. We want to show you our best work. We want to impress you. As hard as we try, we can’t wow you with our photocopying and data entry skills. When my employer issued a professional challenge, I jumped to meet it. I was motivated. I was dedicated. I was enthusiastic. And I learned. A lot. I surprised my colleagues with my capabilities when I had the room to explore them. I surprised myself as well.

3. Your intern is making an investment in you and your company.

When a company hires an intern, it makes a significant commitment of resources: Training and onboarding, staff time, desk space, supplies, a stipend. Staff may be hesitant to hand over their precious client relationships or delicate client work. It’s an investment of time, energy and trust.

When an intern joins a company, he or she also takes a risk and makes an investment. Often it yields dividends, but it’s not always an easy step to take. Going into debt to cover rent while working for free is not appealing. That is an investment in a company.

There are a lot of busy consultancies out. Extremely busy. Budgets are tight, but boy wouldn’t it be nice to have another set of hands to help out? Cue the intern!  There are a lot of workplaces seeking interns. Why should an intern choose yours?



4. Your intern believes his or her time is worth something.

I realize that I am walking into a minefield. I have read and heard various strong opinions about the matter of paying interns: I’ve been warned.

I am going to just say it: Interns should be paid. With money.

It doesn’t have to be much.  We’re not doing it for the money. We want the experience. We want to prove ourselves. We want to build our networks and portfolios. We also want to eat more than Raman noodles and ketchup packets.

I understand the arguments opposed to paying interns. I don’t buy them. Yes, we get experience and access to tremendous opportunities; but you also get access to new ideas and fresh perspectives. Sometimes you get a dud, and your incredible mentorship and training program is wasted; but other times, you get an absolute star.  A modest wage or stipend may be the only thing standing between you and the market’s top young talent.  HR theory tells us if you invest the time in the recruitment process, you will see a return.

5. Your intern will talk about your company’s brand to his or her intern friends.

Eighty-two people graduated in my PR post-graduate class.  As a group, we experienced about 75 workplaces on our internships.  Some experiences were horrible. I’ve heard about them.  Some were incredible. I know about those ones too.

If someone in this network tells me they were treated like crap on their internship, I will think long and hard before I apply for or accept a job with that organization. How a company treats its interns indicates, to me, how it will treat its new hires.

The thing about mistreated interns is that they don’t stay interns forever. They become competitors, stakeholders and decision makers. First impressions count for a lot.

The question is: how many bad first impressions can your brand withstand before it has a full-fledged bad reputation among young talent? Do you want your reputation to drive top people to your competitors?

Internships add value to the workplace experience. The mutually-beneficial arrangement offers new graduates opportunities to learn, grow their skills and apply their knowledge, while (hopefully) providing companies with inexpensive, driven and intelligent keeners who help get the job done.

My own internship experience was invaluable. It affirmed my career choice. It empowered my professional growth. It positioned me for entry into the workforce.

I think my company did a pretty good job.

Zack Sandor-Kerr is a public relations practitioner from Toronto, Canada. He has spent the last 13 weeks as in intern at Burson-Marsteller in Sydney. He returns from his travels in March, where he will begin his job search. Zack blogs on Pizza Friday.

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