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Last month, a group of more than 30 college interns said goodbye to the seals, penguins and octopi at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., and headed back to campus. The interns had spent the summer creating programming, educating visitors and running summer camps, all of which senior education associate Julien Jordan said was a huge help.
“We highly anticipate having our interns every summer,” Jordan said. “It really benefits our department … to have fresh perspectives come from all different kinds of backgrounds.”
However, for unpaid aquarium intern Lan Nguyen, a junior at Northwestern University, things could have gone better. While she said she greatly enjoyed her experience, she felt it needed more guidance.
“They didn’t really tell me how to do things … and I felt a little lost,” said Nguyen, who is majoring in psychological services. “It was like throwing a small dog into a pool and hoping they learn how to swim.”
Putting Interns to Work
Almost 97 percent of employers planned to hire interns or co-op students in 2014, according to a report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And with a pool of hungry applicants looking to bulk up their resumes and gain experience, finding students to bite on an internship offer is easy. But in order to get the most out of their interns, students say, employers need to look past the hiring stage, ensure they offer well-organized programs that make use of students’ abilities and consider students’ feedback.
When designing its 2015 internship program, staffing firm c1search in Rochester, N.Y., targeted a specific project and sought interns with marketing experience who could help redesign the company’s entire website.
“Instead of us going out and hiring some company to do it for thousands, they were able to come in and use their knowledge and experience,” said Madeline Ashworth, business coordinator at c1search. “They were really dedicated, and really committed to the internship.”
For energy provider NRG Home Solar, having an intern gave employees the chance to step back and analyze the bigger picture.
“He took a lot of weight off our shoulders,” said NRG internal sales analyst Anthony Oliver. “It gave us the time to focus on more of the analytics side of things, and try to break down the numbers, rather than taking half the day to just grind the numbers out.”
Interns can also provide valuable feedback on what attracts young people to a specific company or career. Maia Selsky, a junior at the University of Georgia, interned with medical device company St. Jude Medical, traveling to various doctor’s offices and hospitals.
“I liked that it wasn’t a nine-to-five job, sitting in an office at a computer,” said Selsky, a biomedical engineering major. “I was always on the go, always moving.”
But that doesn’t mean that an office environment has to be a drag. Bailey Schrader, a junior majoring in business administration at the University of Richmond in Virginia, said his boss at NRG Home Solar helped him to get excited and feel valued.
“He did an amazing job of keeping everyone in the room psyched about solar,” Schrader said. “[And] if you had something to contribute, you could contribute. Even I, as an intern, was able to offer insights and advice.”
To Pay or Not to Pay?
Internships come with their hurdles for both employers and students. There can be piles of paperwork for employers to sort through in order to ensure that interns get college credit, and sometimes colleges mandate that interns can only do certain kinds of work.
Occasionally, an intern’s lack of motivation may frustrate an employer.
“They are young and inexperienced,” said Jordan of the aquarium interns. “Their work ethic may not be as great as some of the people that are around them and are paid to work here.”
Jordan touches upon another common issue with interns: whether to pay them, and how that affects their performance. While Jordan’s interns work for free, interns at NRG Home Solar receive a paycheck.
“It gives that mindset of ‘They’re paying me, I want to give something back to them,’ ” said NRG internal sales analyst Joseph Bonanno. “When it’s not a paid internship, they may not want to be as equitable because they don’t feel as valued.”
Despite these concerns, interns often come away from their experience with newfound abilities and valuable experience, thanks to their employers. Schrader is now “very confident” in his skills with Excel. Nguyen learned how to better engage with different kinds of people by presenting to huge groups of visitors at the aquarium. And Selsky, who had no idea the career existed before this summer, said that the work she did at her internship “is definitely something I’d want to do after school.”
Employers also can look back at this summer—and draw some lessons for future internship programs. Jordan said she realized that, while her staff attended meetings to plan programming, interns weren’t there to hear those conversations.
“Communication is key with interns,” Jordan said. “Filling them in is important because the more that they’re prepared, the more the group is prepared, and the more camaraderie you can build.”
And from Ashworth at c1search, who is enjoying the company’s sparkly new website, a piece of advice for all employers: Sometimes the interns actually know more than you do.
“They’re in a different age group than employers now, and have a different point of view of what’s out there,” Ashworth said. “Instead of just having them shred papers and scan and print stuff, definitely use them and the knowledge they’re learning.”
Scott Brown is a freelance writer in Evanston, Ill.
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