How to Work Well with Interns

18by Alice Waagen, PhD
Workforce Learning
Photo by Mark Warner,

This article was published in the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce Newsletter, August 2000

Interns are individuals who come to work eager and willing to produce. They are like sponges — picking up new skills and knowledge easily, without the “We’ve always done it this way” baggage that established workers can have. They are bright, capable contributors who, if we are lucky, sign on as full-time employees after their education is completed.

Sometimes, however, it goes more like this: Interns are a waste of your time and effort. They show up late, dress sloppily and spend their days wandering the office doing no productive work. You spend a huge amount of time and effort telling them what to do and get virtually nothing in return. When their internship ends at last, you are very glad to see them go.

As a former director in a major corporation, I have personally experienced and witnessed both of these facets of using interns in the workplace. So, what’s the secret to a good intern program? As is often the case, planning and a soundly structured program will produce excellent results.

First, let’s look at what an intern can bring to the work situation. An intern is an
individual who is pursuing some level of educational degree or program and who is required, or elects, to obtain some real-world application of their program of study through full- or part-time employment. Most commonly, interns work full-time over school breaks or summer months but they can also work part-time during the regular academic year.

Interns can be high school students, college students or even post-grad candidates. What an intern should bring to the job is minimal real-life experience but current skills and information from their degree program. This knowledge can range from basic office skills to computer science or MBA program knowledge. All of this knowledge can be useful to your business, especially in our fast-moving world of evolving technology.

Interns are usually familiar with recent technology concepts, and can help implement updated business practices. In exchange, an employer offers work experience: projects and assignments that provide the intern with opportunities to translate textbook theory into real experience.

So, we have able and willing workers and employers who need jobs done — where can it go wrong? The most common complaint I’ve heard from disgruntled interns is that they were given meaningless work, such as running a copier or sending faxes, when they can do much more. Too much grunt work leads to boredom, and boredom leads to poor motivation. With an underutilized intern, the end result can be sloppy work, absenteeism and a management problem.

An effective, successful intern program needs to be planned with the care and resources you would put to any staffing initiative:

Before the program begins:

  • Clearly define the intern job descriptions(s). What are the positions, duties,
    responsibilities and assignments you want performed by interns? What are the
    performance measures for this work? What are the expected work hours?
    Salary? Review and make sure that these positions will deliver challenging and
    interesting work for the candidates.
  • Match the job description to an appropriate intern pool. For instance, a project
    lead assignment would be great for a senior-level college student but too much for
    a high school grad.
  • Carefully interview intern applicants. Be open and candid about your expectations. Look for fit in personality as well as experience.

During the internships:

  • Manage the intern like you would any staff member. Provide them with
    performance feedback, both positive and negative, on a regular basis.
  • Provide workplace training opportunities, if available, to augment the
    school-based learning. Many organizations have internal training programs on
    teambuilding, communication skills, and other workplace interpersonal skills that
    academic programs do not offer.
  • Set up an internal mentor program for interns. A mentor serves as a nonjudgmental coach who can provide “rules of the road” and feedback that a line manager or work peer cannot.

After the interns leave:

  • Conduct frank, impartial post-assignment interviews of both interns and their
    managers to determine what worked and did not work in the program. Adjust
    future programs to reflect this feedback.
  • Keep in touch with former interns on a regular basis. Not only are they potential
    employees, they can also be good recruiters for future interns.

If you follow these guidelines in establishing an intern program, you will be able to tap a large pool of intelligent, low-cost workers who are willing to work hard for your business. They will be an asset now and in the future if you can give them what they want — the opportunity to get real-world experience putting their ideas to work.