We Owe It to Our Interns (And Ourselves)

I still remember looking longingly at the Safeway “Help Wanted” ads offering $9/hour to bag groceries while I slogged away at yet another unpaid government internship. Like most other DC-based grad students, I regarded unpaid internships as a rite of passage. Yet the trade-off — a rich, rewarding internship experience — was not always part of the deal. The slow internship days without much to do angered me, particularly when I felt that bagging groceries would have been more productive (not to mention lucrative).

Fast-forward fifteen years to Silicon Valley where youth reigns supreme. I’ve talked with venture capitalists here who boast that they don’t invest in companies with CEOs older than 30. Young employees with bright ideas are often given prominent roles within their organization and a chance to make their impact. In this environment, no territory is safe for those with hair starting to grey.

In stark contrast, government organizations conduct senior staff meetings where younger/newer employees often participate principally as note-takers. While the youth-obsessed environment in the Bay Area is perhaps not the answer, is there a happy (say, Middle-Aged) medium?

Indeed, due to a promise to myself decades ago to take care of interns to not have unpaid AND dull internships, I have almost always made an effort to create meaningful work and provide feedback for them when I’m directly in charge. If we can’t pay our interns, they deserve at least as much. This takes work and time to do, yes, but if done properly – and assuming the appropriate interns are recruited – the trade-offs can be enormous for the boss/organization too. Here’s a quick “Top Three” snapshot of what interns have taught me in the past few years:

New technologies – they’re often using things we haven’t heard of yet. Not all catch on in the mainstream, but it’s also good to know what’s out there. Plus, I’ve learned shortcuts that have saved me a great deal of time.

Different career paths – the interns I’ve hired have been a lot savvier than I was at their age. Perhaps that’s to be expected with the proliferation of information available to them. They are making career/lifestyle choices that I would have never envisioned, even now, and positioning themselves for jobs I didn’t know about. This makes me a better boss and manager and I can talk to executives in a more meaningful way.

The obvious – having someone, even with an untrained eye, look at a project/report/industry/analysis can be enormously insightful. They often can “see the forest through the trees” and observe things that the office has too many blinders to notice.

I’m pleased to report that many of “my” interns have gone on to impressive jobs and they also serve as good work contacts as their careers catch up – and even surpass – mine.

So, yes, I’m glad that the “Millenials” have groups to discuss workplace issues (some of which you see on this site). But I would argue that these groups should include people of all ages and work roles. Likewise, senior managers are remiss if they don’t regularly include interns/newer-and-younger employees in their meetings and discussions and encourage them to participate beyond the note-taking role. Different ideas would surface, some of which wouldn’t make it through the regular idea generation process.

Plus, to state the obvious, age often lies in the mind. Surrounding yourself with employees of all walks of life and experience will definitely ensure you don’t go stale. And who wants the same old, same old?

Aileen Nandi is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Priyanka R. Oza

As a recent graduate and current participant in a fellowship, I humbly thank you for this post. I remember sitting at dull internships because I had to graduate, and till date it is not uncommon for graduates to get jobs with a similar experience. I wish all supervisors thought like this. But sometimes, unfortunately, people can be set in their ways and will not budge. So, what do you think? Is that when it is time for a young, energetic and innovative professional to leave their position and look for something better?

Aileen Nandi

Hi Priyanka, I’ve been there! I can’t speak for your specific situation, but do keep in mind that it takes a lot of work for supervisors to come up with meaningful work for interns/new(er) employees to do. And, this is shocking!! to say, but not every boss has her/his employees’ best interests at heart. That said, you have the wherewithal to do things differently when you’re the boss. Best of luck as you decide how/when to move on!

Ryan Arba

Aileen – great insight! I’ve noticed that many internships depend on the “mentoring by osmosis” effect. In essence, mentors think that if an intern follows them around to meetings than they will learn something. WRONG.

The intern should be able to add something of value, and the employer should be able to give value back to the intern. You offer a few great tips in this post. One I would add is to make sure that there is a deliverable attached to the internship (report, white paper, management proposal, etc). Just merely “showing up” rarely adds much value to both the intern and the organization.

Aileen Nandi

Ryan, I agree 100%. The osmosis effect is a small part of what makes an internship meaningful for interns. Having a deliverable/end project is an excellent way of structuring the work in a way that provides value for the organization and focus for the intern.

Terrence (Terry) Hill

A great model for innovative, engaging internships is the Presidential Innovation Fellows program. Volunteers are brought on board to work on specific projects based on their expertise and interests. There is a defined product/result that they are working toward and they have been granted freedom to use their creativity.

Aileen Nandi

Terry, thanks for the link. Not all USG internships are paid (budget realities) and many are organized (or not) in a spontaneous fashion. It’s good to give as many interns as possible the opportunity to intern, but hopefully the management will be engaged enough to provide appropriate structure to make the experience meaningful.