Getting the Most from Internships and Work Experience

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Internships and work experience programs are entered every year by college students all over the world. The premise of the internship or work experience concept is that a student or recent graduate enters a work environment for the purpose of gaining experience in a field placement of their chosen study. Employers take on these inexperienced interns at low or no cost in order to develop the future workforce in their industries. Of course, there are benefits and challenges related to these types of programs for employers and students, but the benefits appear to far outpace the challenges. Upon examining positives and the potential negatives for all involved, it becomes possible to determine what methods may best be used for a student to get the most from an internship or work experience program, and for an employer to optimize the benefits received.

An obvious benefit to employers who participate in an internship program is access to motivated, young, energetic labor at an inexpensive price. Templeton, Updyke, and Bennett relate in their 2012 article in the journal Business Education and Accreditation that numerous studies demonstrate this benefit is a significant motivating factor in businesses’ involvement in these programs (p. 28-29). Businesses can affect their bottom lines in a positive way by saving money on solid, productive labor.

Willison (2012), in another survey of studies such as those noted by Templeton, Updyke, and Bennett, notes further benefits. Willison describes the ability to see how a potential employee fits into the organization as a big plus, which he calls “try before you buy” (p. 351). He also relates a common advantage for employers is the opportunity to recruit quality people during periods of time when business is not strong, as the best new talent may be looking for opportunities to gain experience in a slow period in an industry (p. 351-352). He further opines that when the possibility exists that a temporary work experience or internship position may become permanent, the application process becomes more competitive, and draws a stronger pool of potential workers (p. 353). By themselves, the opportunities to evaluate people before taking them on permanently, as well as the chances to recruit during off-peak periods and to attract better talent by offering the potential of a permanent position may enough to cause an employer to opt into an internship or work experience program.

What are the benefits the potential workers are seeking? They are many, and likely well outweigh those enjoyed on the employer side of the equation. A clear thing of value is the ability to strengthen a resume, which may not only result in a greater chance of being hired after the student’s course of study is complete, but could possibly have an additional benefit of increasing the likelihood of a student’s entering the permanent workforce at a non-entry-level position and at a higher rate of pay. The internship may translate directly to higher compensation at an earlier point in the student’s post-college career.

Another reward to be reaped is the network of contacts gained by working in a business setting in the student’s field of study. Someone with whom the student has worked while interning may remember him or her and reach out when there is a job opportunity. The ability to list as references well-established people in the student’s chosen field who can speak to their experience and skill level is invaluable as well. In these ways, the people on whom the interning student has made a positive impression may be able to make a very positive impact on the student’s future career trajectory.

Another incentive for participation as an intern is that the system is designed to help students succeed. It is not simply an experience builder, but a teaching opportunity to enrich the student’s scholarly experience. Templeton, Updyke and Bennett’s previously cited paper discusses this phenomenon. They analyzed a number of studies and surveys and determined that the top four reasons schools with business programs developed and maintained internship opportunities were to develop students’ “skills in professional writing, skills in professional oral communication, the ability to apply concepts from the specific major and the ability to apply concepts from the core business program” (p. 32). While the resume-building and networking opportunities may be touted as the main motivations for students to participate in the programs, it appears the real motivation to operate them from the perspective of the educator is not to beef up students’ resumes, but to allow students to become better-rounded by the end of their courses of study.

There are also some benefits to the student in a work experience program that are not as obvious, and they are the same as many of the rewards most everyone in a regular, non-intern workaday job receive. For example, there are positive psychological benefits: people who become employed often see an improvement in mental well-being (Hoare & Machin, 2010, p. 768). This uptick in mental health seems to be correlated to the work and social interaction, rather than the compensation (768), so the benefit may be realized from an unpaid internship as readily as from a paying job. In my own experience, I worked without pay for approximately six months on a team of ten people organizing a track meet for a major international track organization, with approximately 100 participants. Regardless of the lack of pay, it felt like a regular job, and I got a great sense of accomplishment from the experience, which had only positive effects on my sense of belonging and mental well-being. This reinforces the concept described by Hoare and Machin that there are mental health benefits to working, whether for pay or not.

Another stealthy positive gained by students in work experience situations is the exposure to the intangible social aspects of the workplace. These interactions are sometimes called “politics.” A student who participates in the effort of a professional workplace necessarily is involved in office politics. Learning to participate in such professional-social interactions in a productive and positive way is part of the maturation process of everyone who is new to the workforce.

There are many who believe “politics” is a concept that affects people above the first line in an organization, and so it may seem counter-intuitive that interns might gain knowledge of these quasi-social interactions. Middaugh and Robertson debunk this attitude in their 2005 article, which they frame in the context of the nursing profession. They relate that nurses, while at a lower rung on the organizational ladder than doctors and senior administrators, have the clout to affect the organization, if they can communicate their expertise properly. They posit that a “knowledgeable nurse with expertise” (394) is the main reason a patient is in a hospital setting to begin with: to get excellent nursing care. They encourage nurses to use this know-how when needed to effect change, because “successful politics involves using expertise wisely, getting others to buy in” (394). The knowledge that someone on the entry-level of a profession may change an organization positively, however slight the change may be, is a bit of overlooked experience that is possibly earned earlier by students in internships or work experience programs.

Students’ internship experiences do not have to be uniformly positive, of course. If the internship is part of the student’s course of study, it likely has a cost associated with it for tuition and fees. If that is true and the work experience is for a non-profit, for example, on a voluntary, unpaid basis, the internship can end up costing the student money. In the event the student already works a part-time job to support his or her education, there may be an opportunity cost associated with the hours that could not be worked at the part-time job as a result of the internship.

As well, if the work environment is terrible, the intern may not be able to simply quit without potentially receiving a failing grade and forfeiting the tuition and fees. Being forced to stick it out may come with a valuable lesson of its own, but it may be paid for via a period of misery. These potential downsides acknowledged; it still appears the positive experiences described above tip the balance firmly toward the side of internships generally being positive mechanisms for students.

As well, the benefits are overwhelmingly positive for businesses – free or cheap labor and test-driving potential permanent employees are gigantic plusses. However, businesses are not promised perfectly pleasant experiences on their end of the relationship, either. What if an intern is unreliable or ineffective and negatively impacts productivity? Can the business get rid of an intern as easily as terminating a bad employee, or must the dead weight be allowed to bog down the organization until the end of the term? What recourse is there if the intern makes a huge mistake and costs the business a large sum of money? In the employer-employee relationship, there may be recourse, but in the case of a college student in a work experience program, are the employer’s options more limited? All these questions regarding potential downsides must be evaluated by the business before entering into an agreement with a college to host student interns.

Once the analysis is complete, and an internship program is the right thing for a student, how may he or she get the most from the experience? In other words, the benefits described above are clear; how best to maximize them? The best way for a student to do so may be to treat the internship exactly like he or she would a new job. In its article, “Success on the First Job” (n.d.), the University of Delaware Career Center gives more than a dozen excellent guidelines for transitioning smoothly into an organization and solidifying a place in the organization once there. Some of the advice relates to being a “good” intern, and some relate to how to make the experience good for the intern.

One of the best pieces of guidance related by the article is simply to show up on time, including returning from lunch punctually. This seems like it is obvious, but to someone who has not worked in a professional environment before, the requirement for punctuality may take some getting used to. Also, being steadfastly punctual may set a student intern apart even from regular, permanent employees in the workplace.

Another piece of advice to be gleaned from the list of tips is for the new employee or intern to “be willing to do some menial tasks” (1). This may come as a surprise to some students, who expect to be learning how to manage patient care (using the nursing example again) but start out changing linens or emptying bedpans. An attitude of humility will likely allow an intern to be given more and more responsible tasks when the more menial jobs are completed with enthusiasm.

The intangible benefits related to learning how office politics operate, described previously, may be gained by “learning the organization’s…structure, policies, products, etc.” (1). The ability to do this may not come naturally to someone without experience in a professional organization. The University of Delaware handout states this is important in order to “know who counts” (1). This ability translates directly to every job the student intern will have following college; cultivating it early will enhance success in future jobs, whether they are in the industry in which the internship is conducted.

These pearls of wisdom are not unique to the University of Delaware, or to academia for that matter. There are a few websites and books available from which newly hired employees (even those who are not entering their first job) may learn skills to be successful. If the student entering a work experience program does treat the experience like a first job as suggested, the advice communicated in these resources may lend itself to the intern’s success.

As a final example of the plethora of good advice available to new employees, Herrick’s 2010 book on the subject may be an excellent source of material that will help get the most from the work experience program. The work is heavy on practical advice, and, logically, begins with the advice that setting goals for the new job should be the first thing on the to-do list for the first week (10). This may be more critical to the student intern, as there may be benchmarks that must be met in order to get complete college credit for the work experience program. All the other benefits of the programs are excellent, but a failure to set goals may result in a failure to attain the first goal of getting credit for completion of the internship.

Finally, the employer in the relationship has a responsibility to help the student along as well. The best way the employer can ensure it gets the most from the intern is through mentorship, which benefits the intern as well. Also, the mentor often gets as much from the mentoring relationship as the student (Denman, 2012), so this involvement in the student intern’s success may have permanent positive benefits for the business.

Businesses and employers will experience benefits and challenges related to the types of programs for employers and students that have been discussed. It is clear upon examination, however, that benefits far outweigh the challenges. Upon examining positives and the potential negatives for all involved, it is possible to determine what methods may best be used for a student to get the most from an internship or work experience program, and for an employer to optimize the benefits received. In any event, the concept of internship or work experience programs are so beneficial for everyone involved that they would continue to be popular for many years to come.

References

Denman, T. (2012). “Mentoring new employees.” Applied Clinical Trials, 21(5), 18

Herrick, S. (2010). I've landed my dream job--now what??? How to achieve success in the first 30 days in a new job. Cupertino, CA: Happy About.

Hoare, P. Nancey, and M. Anthony Machin. "The impact of reemployment on access to the latent and manifest benefits of employment and mental health." Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, 83(3) (2010): 759-770.

Middaugh, D. J., & Robertson, R. D. (2005). “Politics in the workplace.” Medical-Surgical Nursing, 14(6), 393-4.

Success on the first job. University of Delaware Career Services Center. Retrieved 23 Mar. 2014, from www.udel.edu/csc.

Templeton, W., Updyke, K., & Bennett, Robert B. Jr. (2012). “Internships and the assessment of student learning.” Business Education & Accreditation, 4(2), 27-38.

Willison, S. (2012). How internship programs benefit employers. Strategic HR Review, 11(6), 350-352.