Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Internships, from the Other Side

Internships are a mixed blessing.  At their best, they offer valuable exposure to the work world, and can give students both experience and a sense of whether the field they think they want is really for them.  (A well-timed internship in college taught me that I didn’t actually want to be a lawyer.)  Ideally, they can help students blend the real world with theory in a way that enriches both.

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?