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Internships - Are we meant to be taking from society or giving back?

Short unpaid internships are common these days and is viewed by many companies as a way to get free-labour to complete low-quality mundane tasks - filing, databasing, research, coffee runs, etc. Rarely is there structured work or development plans set up for the intern to tangibly gain something at the end of the term. In an optimistic view, the companies are providing the youth a line to put in their resume but no actual skill development. In a very critical view, this is companies exploiting the youth unemployment problem of our times. Internships are not about 'taking' from society, they're about giving back.

Photo of Kaye Han
13 11

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There are many reasons why there are very few quality internships available in the market, in my experience some reasons are:
  1. Quality internships require real work - companies don't want to take the risk of an intern doing anything that can have a negative impact, especially if clients are involved.
  2. Quality internships require a development plan and mentorship - this requires companies to dedicate time and resources to a temporary intern, which obviously is a low priority in busy competitive industries.
  3. The successful completion of an intern's program will not ultimately impact/improve a full-time employee's position or salary in the company - therefore there's no systems in place to motivate employees to assist interns. 
  4. Short-term interns are seen to very rarely produce work that adds value to the company - therefore they're used to help full-time employees produce value-adding work.
  5. The quality of interns themselves is inconsistent, therefore it's seen as more trouble than it's worth by companies. 

All of the above points are all true if we have the perspective that internships are about the company gaining something. But what if we shift our perspective on internships as something that's an expectation for companies to have in order to give back to society? 

Very similar to the way CSR works, the larger a company becomes the more society expects them to do good for the community and give back to society. Internships should be a part of this expectation rather than as another tool for companies to use to lower-costs. 

"our children are the world's future" can be appropriated as:

"our interns are the professional world's future"


Join the conversation:

Photo of Yaowen

Employers want free interns to help do the things which regular employees are not willing to do it. Interns want to learn professional experience, instead most of them learn nothing . For companies, I really hope them to provide actual internship for students. And for students, I hope them have a right attitude about internship. Internship is not a way to embellish resume, it is a opportunity to enhance intern's career experience.

Photo of Meena Kadri

This was such an awesome provocation during our Research phase, Rob! We'd love it if you might consider creating an idea towards re-calibrating internships for our Ideas phase! What ways (big, small, wild...) might you come up with to address these internship issues? We'd love to hear your ideas...

Photo of Dave Zinsman

Hi Rob!
The internship efficacy theme you present interests me. I do personally know people who would identify with your assertions. Check out Ross Perlin, author of Intern Nation, who asserts "“Saving on labour costs, from an employer’s perspective, has become in many ways the principal objective of having internships: to use young people as a form of cheap, disposable labour.”

Photo of Kaye Han

Dave, thanks a lot for sharing that article. It's great to see there are actual facts and research backing this internship issue we're discussing here.

Photo of Jerome Zastrow

Hi Rob,
I have to agree that there are a lot of companies just looking for cheap workers. But there is also a huge number of companies - like the one I am working in - where interns are a serious business. They get a mentor in the department they are working in and the team is discussing in advance which tasks - and also projects the intern can do during their stay.
For these companies, there are two main problems:
1. Quality of the intern is unknown. You never know, what you get. Sometimes, you prepare tasks / projects for an intern and find them incapable of doing them properly. Sometimes, you find out that the candidate is capable of doing much more complex tasks than you expected. Both situations are not perfect --> Is there a realy fast and easy way of evaluating the intern beforehand so the tasks can be tailored to his personal competencies?
2. Obviously, the tasks and projects for short-time interns can not be too complicated or too long-term, but at the same time should be fun and challenging. Unfortunately, these tasks / project are scarce by nature. Therefore, it is very difficult to plan in advance that they are available when an short-term intern comes. On the other hand, the interns are normally "hired" months in advance. Therefore the coordination of internship and project / task is difficult. Sometime an intern arrives just before / after an interesting task pops up. Sometimes other departments have interesting tasks and we just don't know about it. --> Can we think of a methodology or tool that can help with the timing? I thought about somthing like a "task-sharing platform", but did not go deepder into the topic. I am looking forward to the idea-phase!

Photo of Kaye Han

Hi Jerome, wow thanks a lot for sharing your personal experience - lots of valuable information there. In regards to point 1, I absolutely believe that this is a big reason why many companies have progressed to the point where they see interns simply as free help to work on mundane tasks. I also agree with your second point in that it's hard to have a consistent development plan set for the intern as workflow is not always within the company's control. Looking forward to the ideas phase too. :)

Photo of Meena Kadri

Great post, Rob. We're excited about the opportunity area which exists around re-calibrating employer approaches to internships in our upcoming Ideas phase. Meanwhile, it could be interesting for you and others here to start thinking about ways in which we might inform and inspire employers to offer stronger internship programs. How might we do this at scale across multiple employers? Perhaps we need to think about what might incentivise and motivate them. There could be lots of innovative opportunities in this space – looking forward to some innovative thinking from y'all! Awesome that you've kickstarted this valuable conversation before we get to the Ideas phase...

Photo of Kaye Han

Hi Meena, thanks again for your valuable feedback and support. There's definitely a lot of room here for exploration and ideas - will put more focus on the incentivising the employers to make this change of perspective.

Photo of ankita dewan

A nice share rob! its a common issue around the world. Offcorse! the quality of interns themselves will be inconsistent, that is why students enrol themselves for internships, and as what internship basically means is that an intern will be atleast well trained and gets consistent throughout the *vigorous Training* but sadly that is not seen and interns generally gets disheartened at the end, looses self confidence too sometimes, which even effect their conscious for taking a next important step of their life, i.e filling a job application and slowly it loosens the chain of enthusiasm and performance which is expected at the end.

So how can we even expect to see a change even in the society, when the professionals are not willing to teach in an organised way, and an intern is left as an amateur, and this for sure effects a better and efficient *employment* needed in the society.

I really liked how minutely u have connected an intern:company relationship with a neglected society's responsibility.

Photo of Kaye Han

Hi Ankita, thanks a lot for the comment and feedback. Yes, if we really take the sentence "our children are the world's future" into account then we can say in a smaller scale "our interns are the professional world's future". It's about preparing these youths to get all they can to move forward with as few hurdles as possible.

Photo of Rehmah Kasule

Your point on employee not being motivated to support Interns is critical. One of the strategies we have in our programs is "Interns must be linked to an experienced employee for Mentoring, and the employee is measured by the Interns growth within specific time. This means that the employee has no choice but to fully support the Intern. The rationale is that no one come into employement with all the right skills, we all learn at the job. We are also promoting the "pay it forward" where employees have to present at the end of the year how many people they have mentored, with evidenced transformation. The last thing we promote is "Mentoring is like a CANDLE, one can light many without losing its glow, but together they create more light and better heat" we started this to encourage women to support fellow women to grow professionally or in business. I must say, people's mindsets have changed, they know they are not competitors but complimentors of each other.

Photo of Gavin Cosgrave

That sounds like a great way to get interns more involved! Can you imagine if more programs and businesses did that? Obviously it would be difficult to get a large number of these opportunities out there because of the time commitment for businesses, but it definitely ensures a high quality experience.

Photo of Kaye Han

Hi Rehmah, that's great to hear that you've already started to implement some of the thinking - very good to know it's working as well. Ultimately it's just a switch of perspective that can allow for many other natural changes to take effect. I know in my workplace the view of interns is "let's get them in when we need hands for the mundane work that nobody else wants to do" - which is terrible. Imagine if an intern knew that in advance...that the company they are joining for 'experience' is simply getting them in to do work nobody else wants to do.