When Interns Are in the House

by Karsh, Brad Monday, October 18, 2010
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Flowers are in full bloom, season finales are dominating the airwaves, and the end of the school year is upon us. That can mean only one thing – it’s intern season!

For some of us, that’s ten weeks of delivered coffee, spotless files, and collated copies.

Joking aside, interns can be an incredibly valuable resource on a number of fronts. They can provide fresh ideas and perspective, they can deliver solid work output and contributions, and they can even take the burden off an overworked staff.

But the sad truth is that most intern experiences get wasted. If you want to make the most of the summer – for you and for them – here’s what you should do.

1. Invest time upfront.

I conduct a workshop for interns and new hires called “Your First 500 Days.” Over the course of the summer, I work with hundreds of interns helping them make the transition from student to professional.

On average, 50% of the interns I work with complain that they have nothing to do. Literally, days and sometimes weeks go by with not a single assignment from their boss. They sit at their desk and surf the internet wasting away the summer.

Why?

Most of the managers I encounter say they don’t have time to teach their interns anything or give them work to do. It’s “easier to do it myself.” I hear this time and time again.

Don’t fall into that trap. Today’s students are high-achieving, goal oriented contributors. If you spend the first week training, mentoring, and teaching them, you’ll be rewarded with solid work and significant contributions across the remaining nine weeks.

2. Give them meaningful assignments.

You’d be shocked at what a high performing intern can accomplish. Throw them into the mix, and see what they can do.

A great thing to do is to offer a summer-long intern project or case study. You know that “to do” you’ve had on your list forever? You’ve been meaning to figure out how to enhance your online presence and check out how to sell your brand on Facebook or YouTube. Give that project to an intern. Trust me, they’ll be all over that faster than you can poke a friend or write on a wall (ask your intern if you don’t know what that means).

3. Treat the summer like a ten week interview.

I tell interns to act as if the summer is a ten week interview, and you should do the same. There’s no better way for you to determine if an employee is the right fit. Three months in the office definitely beats a forty-five minute phone interview.

How do they handle themselves? How do they respond to pressure? How do they work in a team? Do they “get it”? You should be gauging how they perform first hand. They could be your next full-time hire.

Eighty-five percent of companies use internships as a stepping stone to full-time hiring. Don’t get left out.

4. Don’t go too soft on them.

Sometimes, it’s pretty good to be an intern. At my former company, we’d take them to a Cubs game, treat them to Second City tickets, whisk them away on a Chicago River boat cruise and gorge with them on turkey legs and chocolate covered bananas at the Taste of Chicago. Because they were interns, we told their managers not to have them work past 5:00 p.m. We offered weekly lunchtime seminars featuring a sumptuous catered lunch.

The goal was to impress them, so that they’d want to come back and work after graduation. And come back they did – to a job that was oh so different. We ended up having a huge attrition problem with our former interns. As they left, we’d hear things like “Where were the free lunches and Cubs games?” They really had no idea what the job was going to be like.

Now, I’m not suggesting you never take the interns out, or make them work in a dungeon for the summer, but the best way to figure out if they will thrive in the job is to give them a fairly realistic view of the job.

Treat them like you would any new employee and see how they perform. You may have to get your own coffee, but you also may end up with some great ideas from a potential new hire.