Do you have a plan for YOUR interns?

Often at this time of year, a certain escalating degree of panic sets in as the future generations of the work force realize that they are already late in trying to secure meaningful work assignments for the summer in their chosen field.  The well-established tradition of college and business school students actively seeking low (or ‘no’) paying work for the summer so that they can list such experiences on their resumes is in full-force by now.  The same applies to those of us on the management and ownership side; potential internship candidates come to us, whether electronically or in person, and we enter our annual wrestling match of “do we want one?” “who is going to manage them?” and “do we have to pay them?” as we consider our options.

Historically, internships have been viewed by many as a necessary evil; something that is inherently good to do, but something that no one really wants to be accountable for.  As a result, many of even the best-intentioned internships have evolved into little more than administrative assistant roles, with the interns themselves never truly engaging in activities that could be valuable to them in their future endeavors.  Incredibly, this sometimes leads us to a view of those interns as less-than-motivated, underachieving, and even unappreciative of the “opportunity” being presented to them, when in fact we have essentially ignored them during their time with us.

Emil Faber, the fictional founder of Faber College in “Animal House,” put it succinctly; “knowledge is good.”  When we approach the notion of internships, this is the underlying concept of which we cannot lose sight.  Internships represent a unique hands-on opportunity for those of us more senior in the industry to closely interact with and impart knowledge upon those who have already raised their hands and said “I want to learn from you.”  At the risk of sounding somewhat parental, do we not have an absolute responsibility to respond to this inquiry?

Assuming we can agree that internships are good and that we want to offer them in our places of work, the first step towards creating a program that can be beneficial to both the intern and the manager is to actually have a plan for such a program.  Most of you will silently nod your heads in agreement when I point out that an astonishingly high number of internship programs start out with no plan whatsoever; “when the intern arrives, have them sit with Billy or Sally the office manager and shadow them.”  Clearly, we would not go about any significant strategy for our business with such a lack of planning, yet we do this repeatedly with interns. 

An interesting way to look at the concept of internships is to consider that there should be a mutual benefit from such a commitment.  Certainly, the benefit to the intern him/herself is obvious: hands-on, up close and personal experience in the field that they have chosen to pursue as their career.  For us, the benefit may not be quite so clear.  Any internship program that we create should make certain that the management and leadership personnel that come in contact with the intern(s) are actively engaged with those interns.  The interns should be given meaningful work, not simple tasks, and should be provided with a clear understanding of why this work is important to the overall business.  Expectations should be clearly explained before the work takes place, just as a manager would do with a more senior-level employee.  Think about it this way; if you hired a new Sales Manager or Food & Beverage Manager, you would not simply put them behind a desk or out on the floor without some sort of orientation and direction, and certainly not without an agreed-upon objective for the work being assigned. The same logic should apply for interns; have we defined the plan for the intern, have we defined the accountability for the intern, have we defined how we will measure the success (ours and theirs) of the internship program itself?

We are all very busy people, and spending more time on an internship program in order to ensure the maximum impact from this program may sound to some like a “wouldn’t that be nice?” kind of approach.  The takeaway here is that, just like any other strategic plan that we work on in our daily lives, so too should we be strategic and measurable in how we layout and execute internship programs.  A clearly-stated assignment, discussed in detail with the intern before starting and with precise measurements of performance along the way is just as important for an intern as it is for any other colleague that we manage.  During the course of the project, we should attach the intern to a more senior colleague/mentor so that they can meet regularly to review progress on the project, and to ensure its ultimate success for all concerned. 

While it’s a bit trite to say so, interns are the future of our industry, and we have an absolute responsibility to assist them in developing their chosen career.  We need to commit to them just as we commit to our own management teams and colleagues, so that everyone is working together toward achieving the targeted outcome.