As a former intern turned policy analyst, Sam Perkins takes us through the ins and outs of internships and how to make sure your company is providing the kind of opportunity that people want.
Striking the right balance with an internship arrangement can be a tricky proposition for potential interns and firms. Rightly, unpaid internships that have inexperienced workers carry out productive work are roundly condemned and give the word “internships” a bad connotation. The question that remains for firms that genuinely want to provide educational opportunities for interested but inexperienced young people is; what guidelines should be followed to make sure the arrangement is beneficial for the intern? Key characteristics of a fair internship program should include the following;
1. The internship is directed by the intern
Internships get a bad reputation when they are used as a means for firms to obtain free labour. Far from a learning experience, these “opportunities” only serve to pad resumes. To avoid this, internships should be based around a clear view from the intern about what they want to learn and what activities they want to be involved in. Basing the design of an internship (or just some form of ongoing monitoring) is a better way of supporting the intern’s objectives than a one-size-fits-all approach that sees an intern thrown into a pile of work with little guidance or agency.
2. The internship is based around a set of skills or professional development
Internships carrying out unskilled tasks or which fill a role of a junior worker are unlikely to provide the benefits of a real internship. This also goes for fetching coffee or doing the photocopying, archetypal markers of an exploitative internship. A real internship will see the intern walk in with some level of formal education or knowledge about the subject matter the firm deals with, and is there to expand that body of knowledge through practical experience and to gain advice or guidance about subsequent steps they should take in their career.
3. Involvement in, but not doing work for, projects
Being involved in work for clients or on a range of projects is much of the draw for interns. This is also where the finest line is found; how do you get an intern to be involved with a project without having them do some of the work that staff would otherwise do? Some combination of work shadowing and mentoring is likely the way to go, where the intern sits in and observes, does ancillary research or has a first run at analysis that senior staff will then carry out anyway and provide feedback about. This way the intern gets to see some of what these processes look like without their work being leaned upon by other staff.
4. Intangible benefits for the host firm
Small firms setting up internships like this get the benefit of extra perspectives on the issues under discussion, an extra voice in the office and a means of broadening networks among young people that could result in employment later on (as it did for me). By checking that the activities being carried out by the intern aren’t contributing materially to the actual work programs of full employees, and in most cases actually adding to their workload owing to the time spent mentoring or teaching, firms can be more sure that they are offering a fair internship.
5. Flexibility around working hours
Since the intern isn’t doing work that keeps projects or the company going, when and how often they come in is largely arbitrary. For the sake of consistency and a means of promoting self-discipline, a weekly schedule is best where the intern comes in perhaps every Monday. Keeping it as flexible as practical also means it is easier to fit around work and study, making sure internship opportunities aren’t closed off for students who work alongside study or who face other time imposts preventing them from rigidly adhering to a Monday to Friday arrangement.
In short, it is not difficult to provide the kind of internship that can be highly beneficial for students and those looking for a break into a tight industry. Being careful to offer an opportunity built around the benefit to the intern is the key, and without ongoing monitoring the whole exercise is too reliant on what implementation issues may arise and the risks inherent there. These kinds of internships should be encouraged and firms unsure of how to offer them should seek out advice on doing it properly.
Sam Perkins is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory
FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.
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