Posted April 13, 2022 by Mark Perna
Celebrate National Internship Awareness Month by rethinking the impact of internships—and the young professionals who power them. Mark’s article, “An Internship Advantage Is Powerful. Here’s How To Make It A Win-Win,” published at Forbes.com on April 8, 2022.
In theory, internships are supposed to result in real win-win opportunities for both young people and organizations looking to connect with up-and-coming workers. Young professionals get a leg up on their career, while the company benefits from fresh talent.
Of course, that’s the theory. In reality, this dynamic hasn’t always served young people—especially when organizations treat their interns as free or inexpensive labor or to simply check a box so they can claim they offer an internship program. This approach is both a disservice to the young people looking for a chance to learn and a missed opportunity to begin developing a connection with a potential future employee.
In honor of National Internship Awareness Month, I think it’s high time to show some genuine appreciation for interns and the work they provide, especially at a time when so many organizations are struggling to fill their talent pipelines.
For insight on the future of internships, I connected with Zane Landin, a college student, entrepreneur and “serial intern” who served in more than 15 different internship opportunities with organizations like General Motors, the United States Agency of International Development, the Environmental Protection Agency and NASA. “I believe there is so much value students gain interning at any organization,” he says. “At the same time, an intern brings so much value to a company because they are essentially coming in as a fresh voice. They will be able to examine the company from the outside and bring something new to the table that they may be missing.”
What follows are some thoughts Landin and I discussed about how organizations can create the kinds of win-win situations where both young people and organizations come out ahead.
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: a young person works their tail off in high school to get into a great college, takes on a lot of debt to afford it and then graduates—all without a clue of what they want to do with their career. It’s a systemic problem with many higher education institutions, which aren’t necessarily designed to give their students experience to help them better orient their studies toward the kind of career they aspire to.
One way around this dilemma is to create more internship opportunities for students earlier in their academic lives—essentially allowing them to try before they buy. “Internships play a unique role in helping students learn firsthand what they are interested in,” says Landin. “I speak from experience when I say it is very difficult for students to determine what they are actually passionate about and interested in pursuing after graduating. Universities can only teach so much.”
By landing an internship, young people can develop invaluable “professional skills,” like showing up on time and communicating well, as well as gain experience in different companies and industries.
“Internships serve as a transitionary period and fill the gap between education and employment,” says Landin. “I believe internships are like a rite of passage before entering the full-time workforce.”
Unfortunately, not all internship programs are created equally. Some organizations make far greater investments to ensure that interns get as much out of their hard work as the organization does.
One of the common threads Landin cited among his best internship experiences was a commitment from the organization to communicate with him regularly and often—particularly when the internship was forced to go remote during the pandemic. “Communication is vital for anything to function and develop,” he says. “The same happens for interns. Especially in a virtual format, communication helps keep everyone on the same page and prevents information from getting lost.”
Landin says it was empowering to know he could reach out to his supervisor or members of his team when he needed extra support, help or even just to chew the fat about their personal lives. Staying in regular touch with his supervisor also transformed their relationship from boss and intern into mentor and mentee. “A great internship experience results when a company and supervisor don’t just care about the work, but they invest in their intern’s personal and professional growth as well,” says Landin. “When people can bring their authentic selves to their role, they are inspired to enthusiastically contribute more.”
The type of work an intern is asked to do also matters. Simply handing off labor-intensive “busy work” that no employee wants to do won’t contribute to a positive experience for that intern. Interns should be given challenging tasks that will both contribute to their personal growth and help the company at the same time. In short, treat them like regular employees. “When you are working on assignments and tasks as an intern that will contribute to the growth of the company,” says Landin, “you feel valuable and included as part of the team.”
Before trying for an internship, a young person needs to do the homework of determining what they want to get out of the experience. While it might be tempting to focus on landing a “dream” position with a big-name organization, it might be more important to understand how that position can help you gain the kind of experience that will pay off later in your career.
“Focus on your personal and professional growth,” says Landin. “Find every opportunity to learn and grow, even when you are completing mundane tasks and activities. There is always an opportunity to learn something new. Sometimes, interning at lesser-known brands and organizations can open up even more doors than you think.”
Another important factor can be whether the internship is paid or not—and if you can afford it. While Landin says he’d like to see all interns paid like employees, he understands that can be difficult at times for smaller organizations. That’s why it’s critical to constantly remind yourself of what goals you hope to achieve through the experience.
To that end, Landin suggests getting involved in employee resource groups, setting up coffee chats and looking for additional opportunities outside of your current role inside the organization to broaden your experience.
Case in point: when he was interning at General Motors, Landin became involved in its disability employee resource group where he completed several projects outside of his internship position. “General Motors was an incredible experience,” he says. “It was great to belong to a community outside of the scope of my internship. It gave me additional meaning and inspiration to keep moving forward. I felt like I was contributing to the greater good of a community I was incredibly passionate about.”
Even landing an internship position in the first place can be a growth opportunity for a young person, especially in the area of networking. It pays to connect with people in careers you are interested in through social media and other networks. You can then ask them more about their career, share your own story and see if their organization might have openings for a new intern.
And, don’t forget to keep an updated resume or portfolio handy that reflects your growing set of professional skills and experiences. For example, Landin used his experience at GM to land his next internship at NASA. “I believe this is what allowed me to stand out from my peers because they were able to see the work I was doing and not just hear me talk about it,” he says.
Perhaps just as importantly, Landin plans to leverage his continued internship experiences to land a permanent role with an employer who can provide him a path toward his dream job. I’m not sure win-win opportunities get any better than that.