'Intern Queen' Shares Insights with Employers: A Q&A

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Intern Queen Shares Insights with Employers: A Q&A

Lauren Berger had 15 internships in the four years that she studied at the University of Central Florida, where she graduated in 2006 with a bachelor's degree in organizational business communications.  

Today, the self-described "Intern Queen" is CEO and founder of Los Angeles-based InternQueen.com, a free internship website that she founded 2009. Berger also is the author of All Work, No Pay: Finding an Internship, Building Your Resume, Making Connections, and Gaining Job Experience (Ten Speed Press, 2012) and Welcome to the Real World: Finding Your Place, Perfecting Your Work, and Turning Your Job into Your Dream Career (HarperBusiness, 2014).   

Based on her experiences as an intern, entrepreneur and author, she provides young people with a way to connect with internships and career opportunities and offers them interning tips. For employers, her website provides a platform for posting internships and advice on internship do's and don'ts. 

SHRM Online spoke with Berger when she was in Washington, D.C., on July 26 for one of the five free summer intern parties in the U.S. and Canada that her company has held since 2011. The events offer networking opportunities and panel sessions with employers and are open to any intern, college student or recent graduate.

Her responses have been edited for brevity.

You became something of a professional intern; you could have consulted for the 2015 movie "The Intern" with Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway. Why did you do so many internships?  

Most of my internships were in public relations or media, including entertainment, as well as marketing and branding. They really changed everything for me and inspired me to act like a professional. I got a lot of personal attention and was challenged in a way I was never challenged in the classroom. I worked with executives who seemed to care about my career path. Internships validated what I was learning inside the classroom.  

How were you able to handle so many internships in such a short time? Did you get college credit and/or payment for those internships?

Sometimes I doubled- or tripled-up on internships. The summer between my junior and senior years, I temporarily moved to Los Angeles when I accepted an internship at Fox Broadcasting Company working in its dramatic development department. They only needed me Mondays and Tuesdays, so I accepted an internship with NBC's marketing division helping edit pilots for TV shows on Wednesdays and Thursdays. I had another internship at MTV, which was then owned by Viacom Inc. My internships were from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.—and unpaid—so I waited tables at a hamburger chain in the evenings

I didn't receive college credit for most of my internships. 

Have internships changed in their intent and scope since you were in college?  

They have changed since I founded Intern Queen in 2009 and since I was in college. Most internships have gone from being unpaid to paid positions. The types of positions also have changed. A lot of the opportunities that come across our company platform are for social media internships, which didn't exist nine years ago. And students are finding internships on Twitter by searching #internships and through LinkedIn by searching under the Jobs tab or finding people with the title of internship coordinator.   

[SHRM members-only HR form: Model Work-Study Internship Program]    

Students are catching on to LinkedIn. When we need to recruit students from outside of our network for specific opportunities, we used to go to Instagram. Now we go to LinkedIn almost 100 percent of the time, and it's where we see the best results.  

Giving interns big projects has been gaining traction. The "reverse internship," where companies tap interns for generational insight that could benefit the employer, is a newer idea. The structure of internship programs—such as including them in an executive mentor series and bringing in speakers—has not changed.  

What are some of the top things employers get right about internships, and what are the practices they need to stop or change?  

The intern hiring process should be a multilayered process, not just one interview. The more involved you make the process, the more seriously the student takes the internship.  

Establish a chain of command so the interns and other employees know who steps in if the person who oversees the program is not available.   

Introduce the students to different departments and department heads. Include them in brainstorming sessions and meetings whenever possible and appropriate, and always ask them to take notes during those meetings.  

Give them feedback—at minimum, two weeks into the internship, at the halfway mark and two weeks before the internship ends. Find a way to have a professional conversation and provide constructive criticism. Otherwise, they're never going to learn.   

Do some employers view internships as a source of free or cheap help—that is, interns are people who can handle the grunt work?  

Absolutely, but most of those programs don't work out. Companies need to be passionately committed to their programs and realize internships can impede their daily processes in the office. You're going to have to stop what you're doing and explain things to the intern, but if done properly, internships are a great benefit to the employer.

It's important for the heads of these companies to educate the entire team on what works and doesn't work in an internship. For example, the intern should not be working in a position that generates revenue for the employer. [See the U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division internship program fact sheet under the Fair Labor Standards Act.]

Explain to employees why the company has the internship program. One of the advantages is you're building a talent pool. It's great to be able to hire someone you've already had a test run with and who knows your processes and systems. That saves the company a lot of time, money and energy. Some Fortune 500 companies hire more than 80 percent of their intern pool.

We have several interns at Intern Queen that I've told "I want you to call me the day you graduate."   

It also allows a company to give back by helping the next generation. A lot of successful executives started as interns, and they want to train America's future workforce. And employers are starting to see the value of tapping into the Millennial or Generation Z mindset early on and bringing in young people who do things in new and different ways.  

What advice would you give to HR professionals regarding internship programs?   

Develop specific policies and a structured program with appropriate tasks, and have a clear start and end date to the internship. Every team member who comes in contact with your intern needs to be educated on those policies.   

Have interns sign nondisclosure agreements and emphasize the importance of being discreet about the company's internal workings—including communicating to them the employer's social media policy. Also, remind interns not to take and share photos of their desk and others' desks; such photos could inadvertently reveal confidential employer information.

Encourage your senior leadership to get involved with these kids, sit down with them and talk about how they got started in their career. 

I've seen interns go on to be very successful after college. A lot of them become decision-makers. We tell students not to burn bridges, and it goes both ways. Remember that your interns are potential clients and customers.   

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