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.