In May of 1993 I graduated from Columbia University in the heart of New York City. Filled with optimism and dreams I headed South on Interstate 95 to Washington, D.C. Prior to my graduation I had made some calls and had secured an internship with my local Congressman from Florida to work in his Capitol Hill Office for the summer.
A recent graduate from a fine university and now working on Capitol Hill, I was ready to go. The internship paid just enough to afford me a small studio apartment for the summer, to put gas in my car, and to buy one McDonald's $2.99 extra value meal a day for my daily nourishment. It was going to be a great summer.
When I arrived I was shown the Congressman's office. It was divided equally into three sections--one third for the Congressman's private office, one third for the reception area and Chief of Staff, and one third for the pit--the side of the office where all of the Congressman's legislative assistants, or LAs, were wedged.
Assigned to the pit, one of the legislative assistants, showed me where I was to spend my summer. As we walked by desk after paper-cluttered desk I kept wondering when would we get to mine? Ultimately we got to the back of the office and a set of off-white louvered bi-fold closet doors concealing a regular--not walk in--closet. The LA smiled as he pulled open the doors: "Welcome to your office."
Allow me to describe for you my workspace that summer. My desk, what you could see of it from the old constituent letters that had been unceremoniously heaped thereon, was an old door that had been propped up by, from what I could tell, was other old constituent letters to the Congressman. My computer, well, let's just say it looked like something you would have seen on a special about Steve Jobs when he started Apple. This was in the 90s mind you, but this thing was ancient. Oh, and the best part--the pit's coffee station--was a coffee maker and hotplates for two boiling-hot pots of coffee that balanced on a wire shelf about 24 inches north of my head.
For three months I was their gofer, their go-to guy, and the dog they kicked. They never once took me to lunch, or got me coffee--unless you count when they would spill some on me when they got some for themselves. I came, I worked, and I went home.
I learned a lot about what not to do when running an internship program that summer. The lessons I learned are now employed in our office every day with our internship program.
For anyone considering starting a program the benefits cannot be understated. First, if run correctly interns offer you a great source of free or relatively low-cost labor. Second, it allows you to evaluate and spot potential future hires for your company having the ability to test their aptitude for your business in your actual workplace environment. Third, it offers you the ability to evaluate your current full-time employees and how they manage those underneath them.
But as I stated, this assumes that the program is well-structured. How do you make sure that is the case? Follow these steps.
First, running a program is not just about having interns in the office that will do what you want when you want it. It is about creating a program during which the interns receive valuable real-life work experience while assisting you in your company's directive. As such, an actual program should be set to paper to make sure that the process of hiring and employing interns serves the greater good of your company while assisting them to gain experience in your field or industry.
An internship program must have defined goals for both the interns as well as the company. The company's goals may be simply to assist administrative staff in the day-to-day operation of the company or to assist marketing in the effectuation of marketing systems. Whatever. But the goals should be written down so that they can form the basis for the structure of the work by the interns during the program.
Hand-in-hand with this, the interns should also be provided with a list of defined goals for what they will receive from the internship. The program should be structured such that both the company and the interns have a list of goals that will be accomplished by and through the program.
A program must have an administrator, the person who is in charge of making sure that the interns accomplish the goals and tasks set forth for the same. Of note, if you are considering promoting someone in your office into a supervisory position assigning them to be the administrator of the intern program for a period of time is often a great way to evaluate their management skills prior to offering them any such promotion.
Most internships are unpaid or paid at a relatively modest rate. In this regard, keep it light. You want them to work hard. But you must also recognize that unless they move into a more permanent position they are simply temporary contractors in your business. As such, and especially if they are unpaid, make their time at your office as pleasant as possible. Buy them a free lunch here or there. Starbucks is always a nice treat. Make sure that they learn and not just work. Happy hours and sporting events are also a nice way to say thank you for their efforts during their internship.
Finally, make sure that you have a defined start and end point for the program. If you are hiring college students a summer program will typically begin in early June and run through the beginning of August. Fall and Spring semester programs are also good points of demarcation. But when they start make sure they have an end date clearly set forth. That way if they do not impress you sufficiently to earn a full-time position in your company the end is pre-determined.