Internships offer an opportunity to fuel your curiosity and transform your career – for both the intern and the professional mentor.
By Stephen Dupont, APR
From nearly the first day a student enters college or university, he or she will be pummeled with an unmistakable message from educators over the next four years: “Get an internship.”
Of course, they’re right: a student who has had an internship experience has a better chance of achieving employment following college than a person who hasn’t, simply because the student has already acquired work experience in their field of study.
But there’s more to internships than meets the eye. Internships offer a profound learning experience — not only for the student, but also for the individual who manages and mentors the intern.
Over my career, I’ve probably hosted a couple dozen interns. Through these experiences, I’ve come to realize that internships can hold transformational moments that can help a young person make critical career decisions in the years ahead.
In other words, internships can have an effect that ripples over years, maybe decades.
Throughout my career, I have made an effort to hire interns as part of “giving back” to my profession. Hosting an intern not only makes me feel better about myself as a professional, but can serve as an opportunity to learn something new about myself in the process, or learn new skills. For example, recently, one of my Gen Z interns showed me how to more efficiently navigate a specific social media platform.
My enthusiasm for internships stems from my own experience. I interned for my hometown newspaper, the Prior Lake, Minn., American, where I put journalism theories I was learning at the University of St. Thomas into real-life practice. I also interned in the public relations group of the Minneapolis office of Bozell & Jacobs Advertising, where I learned about creativity and how to serve clients. Both internships had a profound impact on the decisions I eventually made in my career.
So how can you leverage the power of an internship? Consider these tips:
Low-cost labor or an extension of your brand? Some companies look at interns as low-cost labor. I look at interns as a powerful opportunity to extend my company’s brand into college campuses. Students want to work with cool companies. If they share positive experiences about your company with their fellow classmates, it’s an opportunity for your company to earn some cool factor on it. You won’t get that by mistreating your interns or giving them mundane or meaningless work.
Be straightforward. Don’t tease or lead on your interns. I make it crystal clear that the internship is, first and foremost, a learning experience. This is especially important if you hire a college senior who is anxious about employment following graduation.
Consider hiring high school students, and college freshmen and sophomores. Some companies use internships to test out talent. I use internships as an opportunity to give a student a leg up. I know an internship with our organization will be an invaluable experience that will lead to more opportunities. That’s why I like to hire students earlier in their college experience with the intent that our internship will help them attract future internships in the following years. I once hired a very motivated student for a summer internship who had just graduated from high school. Today she’s a senior communications director for a tech company in Silicon Valley after having worked in Washington D.C. for a number of years.
Writing, writing, and more writing. I strongly believe writing is a reflection of your thinking and that the best thing you can do for an intern is to give him or her as many opportunities to write – reports, articles, memos, emails, banner ads, headlines, plans, outlines, white papers, presentations, etc. Through writing, your interns learn to interview people, ask questions, focus their thoughts, edit, re-write, proofread, and see their drafts transformed into a final work product. I always tell my interns: When you turn an assignment in to me, think of me as the client — only give me your very best work, and use all the tools available to you, such as Spell Check or having others review your work before you turn it into me.
Eliminate dead water. Pro anglers use a term called “dead water.” In preparing for a fishing tournament, pro anglers learn which parts of a lake have the fish (where they should fish during the tournament), and which areas have few or no fish (dead water). As I tell my interns, the point of your internship is to learn what you like about a specific profession, as well as what you don’t like, and to use that information to make future career decisions. If you’re managing or mentoring an intern, I challenge you to offer a variety of experiences to help an intern to better understand this and eliminate the “dead water.”
Develop a career plan. One of the best things you can offer an intern is career planning. With my interns, we rewrite resumes, create LinkedIn pages, arrange informational interviews with other professionals I know, and discuss future career plans. More importantly, work with your intern to help the student discover their “Why” – why they want to pursue a particular profession and why it matters to living a purpose-driving life. Through this process, you may discover some things about your own career that may surprise you, such as a desire to teach or pursuing a specific path within your profession.
Develop lifetime habits. Because many interns have never worked in an office setting, help them develop good business habits, from how to dress appropriately for a workplace and showing up on time to the office each day to always being ready to capture an idea (always have a pen and paper with you).
Allow your interns to make mistakes. An internship is about learning. People learn through mistakes. Create low-risk opportunities for your intern to fail and use those moments to help him or her think through what they could do differently. This mindset will help you think about what mistakes and failure mean to you and others with whom you work.
Learn how to ask. I think the No. 1 lesson that you can help an intern learn is how to ask. Toward the end of her summer internship, one of our interns came to me to ask for my help in setting priorities for several projects she was working on. I immediately praised her and said, “That’s the most important question you’ve asked me all summer.” and then I explained why. Asking for help or asking someone to do something (such as selling an idea to someone) is a skill that many people struggle with for their entire lives.
Take time to listen. I try to make time to grab a cup of coffee with our interns and just listen. Listen to their experience so far. Listen to what they worry about for their careers. Listen to that which they aspire. Likewise, don’t be afraid to share your story about how you entered the work world, and what your career dreams and hopes are. Most young people genuinely want to know.
Set up informational interviews. As time allows, seek out a couple of informational interviews for your interns. For example, I had a public relations intern who was interested in pursuing a career in video (filming, editing and production), so I introduced him to a friend who produces a TV program for our local PBS station. Similarly, another intern was interested in pursuing a political communications career, so I arranged a handful of interviews with various communicators working in politics and public affairs.
Be a cheerleader! Interns grow up and eventually become employees, competitors and customers. Cheer your interns on to greater career success. Invite them to stay in touch and to seek out your counsel. Be quick to listen and be quick to inspire them to do great things.
Pay it forward. Finally, make a point to tell your interns that years from now, they may be in the position of offering learning experiences to a high school or college student, and to pay back the favor by taking on an intern and sharing what they know. This is how we create that ripple effect of kindness that is so needed in today’s work world.
The Bottom Line: Building Lifetime Relationships; Sharing the Abundance of Your Wisdom
So what are internships really about? To me, it’s not so much about giving someone an opportunity to build their resume as it is an opportunity to share the abundance of your wisdom and your life-long passion for learning.
At the end of the day, it’s about investing in relationships and encouraging the next generation to follow your lead. In our omnipresent digital world, we need more people to build genuine, face-to-face relationships with trust at the core. Internships allow you and your organization to put that practice into action.
Stephen Dupont, APR, is VP of Public Relations and Branded Content for Pocket Hercules (www.pockethercules.com), a creative branding powerhouse based in Minneapolis. Contact Stephen Dupont (@stephendupont) at firstname.lastname@example.org.