Tuesday, May 15, 2012
Internships, from the Other Side
And sometimes that happens. But the dark side of internships is also clear. When they’re unpaid, as most are, they effectively screen out anyone who doesn’t have family money. Anecdotally, in some areas they’re actually starting to displace paid workers, since cynical firms have figured out that interns provide free labor. And while it’s lovely when interns get exposure to the jobs they thought they wanted, it’s not uncommon to hear of interns banished to photocopying or gofer duty.
Today I heard a different angle, and it gave me pause.
In discussing internships with someone who works for a major local employer, he mentioned that having interns is actually a lot of trouble. He suggested that many interns arrive without the work ethic that employers want, and the lack of a paycheck doesn’t help motivate them. After a few bad experiences, many employers -- especially smallish ones -- just stop participating altogether, judging the whole thing more trouble than it’s worth.
I was so caught up in the “free labor” narrative that I didn’t expect to hear that.
His suggestion was that colleges who want to place large numbers of students in internships over time develop in-house programs to prepare them for the positions. As he put it, he wants students who are “internship-ready.” When I asked what that entailed, he and a counterpart from another local company agreed that it meant things like appropriate dress, consistent and prompt attendance, workplace-appropriate communication skills, and a basic work ethic.
These may not be major issues at, say, the glamorous/exploitative media internships in New York City for which Ivy League grads compete. But at this level, the issues are real.
Those skills are notable mostly by their absence; a couple of bad experiences will overwhelm a host of good ones. But I couldn’t really disagree with him, either. If you count on people to show up and be ready to work, and they let you down repeatedly, the temptation to just wash your hands of them makes sense.
At the same time, I couldn’t help but notice that what we used to call “workplace-ready” is now being called “internship-ready.” It’s getting harder to find places to make rookie mistakes. Minimum wage jobs may teach some level of promptness, but they don’t do much in the way of teaching the kind of communication skills expected in a white-collar workplace. (The break-room banter at the ice factory would have made a sailor blush.) Part of the value of the better internships, I suspect, lay in exposing students to educated, older people who both expect and exemplify professional behavior. That’s hard to fake, and hard to substitute.
And hard to get, now.
Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or figured out) a way to make internships easier for white-collar employers to provide? Alternately, have you seen or figured out a way to ensure that the students who land the internships will show the soft skills from the outset?
How many of your students need remedial, err, um, I mean, "developmental" instruction to write a grammatically correct sentence? Should it really be a shock that they might not have the communication skills expected in a white collar workplace? There's a lot more to it than "don't curse." The student who says "Yeah, I graphed the numbers and the graph is on the slope but not really and like you know is off by the percentage of the error" (almost a verbatim quote from a lab report that I just graded) will not be impressing anybody.
How many of your students make a graph that spills over the page margin (this is assuming that they know how to graph), print it out with half of it cut off, and hand it in rather than re-sizing it to fit on the page? Those students will not be impressing anybody with their analytical skills.
How many of your students are shocked to learn that they need to actually buy the textbook, read it as assigned, and show up to class? These students will not be impressing employers with their self-discipline.
Besides, I gather than you're in a humanities or social science division. You probably don't have the concept of a "research group" in your discipline the way that we do in STEM. In STEM grad programs, you learn very quickly that n00bs are a hassle to supervise in the lab. (You learn this when your supervisor decides that you're no longer worthless and hands you an intern to supervise, and now you have to find something for them to do and realize that you'd be better off just doing it yourself.) I'm not the least bit shocked to hear that interns are more trouble than they're worth.
Have you ever gotten an email from a freshman? If not, pose that question to the faculty.
That should tell you everything you need to know about why your students are not desired in internships.
We tended to give our interns about 10 projects over the course of the summer. On the first project, I typically had to spend twice as much time working on it with an intern than I would have by myself, no matter how good the intern was.
But with good interns, by about project #5, I was only spending, say, 20% of the time I otherwise would have on the project - and this tends to stay constant through project #10.
With bad interns, all projects are more time consuming than they would be if you did them yourself and you tend to try and avoid assigning work to these interns because it takes more time than it saves.
There are also break-even interns, but most are either good or not good.
I'm not sure how you can prepare students for internships if they are not prepared. Although making sure that the internship is one that they might be interested in would probably help some.
Alex's comments echo my own just-finished grading experiences. They make me appreciate that another pre-internship skill is learning that thinking about an answer is even more important than finding an answer somewhere, e.g. the internet or a classmate or colleague. "The web says ..." shouldn't cut it, at least not in a STEM environment.
The training time for interns sounds remarkably like training undergrad researchers and new grad students. Participating in research has helped our R-1 students be successful summer interns, but I assume that option isn't viable at a CC. Perhaps there are some CC student employment paths that serve as tracks to internships?
Honestly, I think we're too hard on kids without being willing to tell them what we want. They don't write and speak that way to annoy you. They do it because they don't know any better. I've taught business and engineering students and I would require them to write emails in complete sentences. I would take off points and/or require them to rewrite it before I would respond. I would explain that a boss would not accept it so neither will I.
You can't expect some students to learn this stuff by osmosis as many of us did. If they're not exposed to the kinds of behaviors that one expects in the workplace, then they need to be taught them explicitly.
At my alma mater, where I'm also PT faculty, every student in the human services program does at least two internships. One is about 200 hours and the senior practicum is at least 450 or 510. During those experiences, they journal each week with their supervisor (me), have site visits, do learning objectives, mid and final evals. They are also taking a class where they process what's going on in the internship. The key is that I'm involved. I reach out to the field placement and make sure things are going well.
I'd counter the argument that internships require family money. Far too many of my students are just eeking by to do their internship. Some with children to care for. It's a required part of the program and while my SLAC may be snooty, it's more affordable than most and has a program that is fairly unique in the state. Some of my students are extremely well-prepared and ready, others need coaching. That's my job.
An unpaid internship must be for the benefit of the intern. It's a community service provided by the company, not a supply of free labor. If you're using unpaid interns to do productive work for your company then you're breaking the law.
Yes, this is true even if the intern is getting college credit
The main problem with youth and careers nowadays is that everyone wants something for nothing. No one wans to actually show youth anything.
These employers want students who are prepared and trained for the workplace right away. No acclamation period, just be productive day one. And they want educational places to show students this. It's not their job to teach students how to behave in the workplace.
College and university profs say that higher education isn't about "job training" and that students show take non-credit remedial classes to learn things like how to write and communicate at an adult level. After all, how can they discuss Shakespeare or the Fundamental Theorem of Calculus if the student's aren't prepared? It's not their job to teach students how to behave in the workplace.
Secondary school teachers have multiple classes, strict curricula and sometimes standardized testing requirements, as well as hormones and school politics to deal with. They teach students the best they can but really, they've got their hands full. It's not their job to teach students how to behave in the workplace.
Elementary school teachers are just trying to keep students from eating glue and how to write cursive and use card catalogs. Students should learn the fundamentals. It's not their job to teach students how to behave in the workplace.
Parents are paying good money for tuition and taxes to these people. It's not their job to show students how to behave in the workplace (but the wealthy parents know their kids will learn by watching, so they just pretend it's not part of their job).
Maybe this is just a rant, but I can definitely see a problem here.
The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
(from the US department of labor at http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.pdf )
Why aren't those educated, older people the college professors?
One of mine was. Hardest working person I ever met, 40 years ago, a prodigious multi-tasker, as well as an excellent teacher and clever thinker. I participated in two of his research projects, which might be called paid internships today. I've tried with limited success to emulate his habits. But I didn't really need preparation for being employed, I had scooped ice cream at Baskin Robbins in high school.
Man, I miss those days.
Best and the brightest... *sigh*
I have learned to ask for a writing sample/project sample when hiring, and that has helped somewhat.
If the students aren't treating internships like a valuable thing, it might be a good time to reconsider how much value they actually provide.
Case in point - another entitled snowflake!!
I am frustrated that prospective internship supervisors expect my sophomore-level biotech students to be able to perform complicated research in the course of the semester; the students we send are capable of working in labs, but don't know much beyond the basics...I always thought that the internship was a place for them to hone their basics and maybe become more advanced in one specific technique. The bullet points MRW presented are pretty much what I've thought to myself all along. The problem for my students is that we are in a geographic area were there are many students competing for internship spots.
What a shift from years ago, and not for the better.
Our school's social work department seems to do very well with preparing their students for internships. They have department-wide standards that state that students in social work classes must wear shoes to class, must not have visible underwear, must use proper punctuation in emails to professors, etc. As a pre-professional program they can get away with this in a way that I suspect the English department couldn't.
Is the problem in that Ivy League example that those students have never held any kind of job, part time or otherwise, where they might be held to specific expectations? (Ann Romney is unlikely to be the only child of the 1% who never held a job in the economy, before or during college and marriage.)
Some of those people who provide exemplars of professional behavior ARE college professors. However, one change that I have observed over the last decade or so is that students seem increasingly unlikely to believe anything they are told or observe in "school" (which has expanded to include universities) that isn't going to be on a test. A nearby engineering school has to develop professional behavior in its students before allowing them to interview for internships. They just don't notice that they should behave the way they see their professors behave.
This is why I limit my internships to half-time, and I do everything I can to make sure that the intern walks away with something value-added to his/her CV.
But I'd still rather be able to offer a salary, even if it was just minimum wage.
My own school handled it the following way: when you apply (and are accepted) to a coop position, you get your credit hours, and tada, it was like taking no less than 3 free elective classes, making money, building networks, etc.
However, at some point in 2003, there was implemented a rating system the employers were allowed to use (optionally, though I know mine took full advantage of it). Just as you probably get monthly or quarterly or whatever reviews from your boss who ran and around and asked people what they thought of you and made you type up a report of what all you did, a copy of all this was sent to the school.
If you got a bad review but were allowed to come back a later semester (coop programs typically shift 1 semester in school, 1 semester in work, etc. for 3 full semesters or 1 year), you were placed on academic probation.
If you got a bad review and were NOT recommended to go back, you went through a "court hearing" similar to academic misconduct hearings where the coop supervisor (employed by your school), your employer (or a representative or anyone if he didn't feel like it), a member of the student council, etc. to decide whether or not you just got kicked out of school.
This became drilled into our heads at my school (though not in some sort of fear-mongering depraved sense) enough that we all pretty much knew that we got 4 months (the first semester of work, basically) to figure out how to conduct ourselves or we could just pack our stuff and leave.
My employer loved it so much that, after a few years, my rival school actually can't get any students to go in the coop program without recently-implemented "work ethics" courses, about 6 hours'/2 semesters' worth. Our school never really had a problem. But enough employers really forced the other school to implement such courses or actually lose its coop program because of how big a deal it became.
I'm not sure how that can apply to internships since internships aren't always affiliated with the college itself (except of course by way of reputation), but I've seen a few other schools implement something similar (in the sense that students from said schools are wisening up to how they should behave themselves or fear getting thrown out) even without coop programs, though I obviously don't know the full details.