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Internalise: The how, what and why of adding an intern to your team


Internalise: The how, what and why of adding an intern to your team

By February 15, 2015One Comment

If we take a look at TV the world of interning is apparently full of low pay, slacking and my personal favourite – getting nowhere with a placement even though it seems like it’s forever leading to a role (Girls anyone?). I started my career through interning, unpaid interning even, which later lead to a giant full time role and a change of cities – and apparently I’m not alone. In an ever increasingly competitive job market, interning gives a foot in the door, vital experience and hopefully a couple of good contacts for the future. 2009 saw 30,000 students in the United States take part in some form of pre-work apprenticeship, a long held U.S. working tradition that holds amongst it the likes of Bill Gates and Ursula Burns. 

Closer to home (and possibly my experiences) universities and learning institutions hire ‘work placement’ experts to help give students access to real-world experience, whilst learning models in general shift to favour industry tutoring. One of those industry tutors is Thomas Watts, teaching as part of the AUT University – Communication Studies programme. Watts implores students to take placements wherever possible “I think interning is a really important part of moving into the workforce because it offers a framework for prospective (often young) employees to get guided through what working for an organisation is actually like. Even though I didn’t work at the place I interned 7 years at ago, I’ve utilised pretty much everything I learned from there in other jobs.”

The appeal from an employer perspective is not hard to see. A sea of eager humans armed with the latest in education all hireable for short term projects – for less than the going rate, or in some cases for free. It all adds up to a seemingly fool-proof solution for a cash strapped yet busy startup. Ruth McDavitt of Summer of Tech knows this all too well. The organisation with arms in Auckland and Wellington helps connect talented students with great roles in tech and innovation. The programme includes bootcamps and mentoring and pits potential employers against each other to prove that their workplace is in-fact the one that the intern wants. We asked Ruth a few important questions about how exactly one goes about deciding if an adding an intern is in their future. 

What should a business think about before deciding to add an intern to their team?
RM: Make sure you can commit the time to mentor & train your intern, and that you ARE willing to incorporate them into your team. The best internships are when both sides of the equation are motivated to make it work, that means meaningful work, that’s aligned with intern skill-set AND the right support (especially at the beginning of the internship).

Think about the time available: is it a short term or a part-time project? Can you give an intern some chunky piece of work that they can point to and say they contributed to? If it’s short term (less than a month, say) and/or part time, make sure you set realistic goals so that everyone’s happy with the outcome.

When you hire an intern, you’re committing to training and development, and it’s going to take time to find the right student, and mentor/manage them into the role. Make sure you do all your usual recruitment checks, it’s especially important if you’re a small team that you get someone who’s a good “fit” for your team – attitude, personality, chemistry are so important, and so it their aptitude and ability to learn fast!

How do we make sure our intern gets the most out of their posting?
RM: Ask them what they want to get out of it, and agree at the beginning what’s feasible from your side. Sometimes they’re looking for a meaningful summer job related to their degree programme. Sometimes they want to “test out” future career paths, to experience what it’s REALLY like to work in a particular role or in a particular type of company. A lot of the time they’re looking for something meaningful for their CV, a LinkedIn recommendation or written reference, or in the case of web designers and developers, something to add to their portfolio and increase their employability.

Encourage them to think about the soft skills they’re developing during their internship, too. They may not realise it, but the ability to work well across different disciplines, work as part of a team delivering value to a paying customer, learning about the trade-offs that happen when working to deadlines and changing work scope… all are incredibly valuable practical experience that future employers will value. It makes a huge difference when students/graduates can talk about non-academic, practical experience in future job interviews.

Should we be paying interns and if so how do we decide how much to pay them? 
RM: Summer of Tech is totally staunch on this: YES you should pay them, and it should be a fair market rate. We have a minimum $20/hour for full-time tertiary students in summer internship roles, but the average in our programme is a bit higher than that, because employers will pay for top quality talent. In our experience, unpaid internships are not useful for students OR employers. The value of the work and the commitment on both sides tends to be low. It’s also a bit dodgy under the NZ Employment Contracts Act – slavery is not something that’s legal in this country, so BEWARE of unpaid internships!

If you’re hosting a secondary student or someone younger, it’s likely to be a very short term role and we’d be calling it “work experience” rather than an internship. In this case, if you’re getting business outcomes from their work, then you should TOTALLY pay them, even if it’s the minimum wage. If you’re not getting business outcomes from their work, then some kind of reimbursement in the form of vouchers or products/services is a great way to repay them for their time and interest in your company. If you’re getting no value from hosting a student, then think twice about doing it – it probably won’t be good for your brand or a good use of your time.

Think about why you’re hosting an intern, we think it should be a strategic recruitment tool, that you’re investing in the future talent pool, giving someone some hugely valuable industry work experience. You should be paying for that value!

So you have space in your team and your calendar to bring an intern on board. Great! GridAKL have a top four things to consider if you take the leap into the land of the interns. 

1: Have an idea of specific projects you want them to work on, long before you hire them: Just like you wouldn’t hire some random you met at the bus stop to come in and do design for your quarterly investment report, you should probably not just get a random intern in to work on what ends up being a project outside of their skill-set. Instead sit down with your team and establish exactly what you want your intern to do, and then like you would hire for a role, find an intern that is capable and confident in doing exactly what you need. It seems simple, but you would be surprised how often people don’t do this. 

2: Be patient & kind: Like any project, a project your intern is doing will need some management – and possibly more than normal. Depending on your new team member’s experience, you may need to hand hold them through some processes that to you and your team seem commonplace, this is of course because you and your team have been working in your industry (and your team) for years. You too once had no idea how to fill the toner on the printer, or how to create a reporting structure for your projects. 

3: Supervise & lead: The above point brings us on to our next point, make sure you set out a clear relationship in the beginning, so that your new intern knows who they can go to for help and so that you have someone making sure that your project is getting done. 

4:Make their role clear, and put it all down in one place so they can refer to it: I am a massive fan of putting stuff into a project brief, not only does it become a one stop shop of exactly what you are after including all the deliverables, but going through the process of putting one together will really solidify exactly what you are after. Your project brief should 1) layout the team, project lead and supervisor and include all their contact details, 2) provide an overview of the project including any work done to date and the thinking behind this 3) list an overall outcome 4) define tasks 5) list deliverables. Last but by no means least, 6) set out a clear timeline and KPI’s. 

Much of what has been said here boils down to a basic thought, think about what the intern is going to get out of the process along with what you are going to get out of the intern. Probably not a bad thing to think about for life in general, after all the interns of today could well be the Bill Gates’s of tomorrow. 

Anya is the Brand & Communications Co-ordinator for GridAKL, she landed her first paid role in digital communications after offering up her skills as an unpaid contributor. If you like the idea of being an unpaid contributor you could contribute to the glorious GridAKL blog! Fire your idea through to Anya via our contact form.