August 2008 Archives
There’s a saying, “Summertime in DC – the oppressive heat, influx of tourists, and swarms of summer interns are enough to make you want to stay home.” Maybe I’ve mangled that a bit, but I think you get my drift. Washington, DC, like other large cities, certainly gets its share of interns each summer. The question I’ve been throwing around lately is – how can we make the most of the time we have them.
Energy is contagious, but an intern’s energy level can start to take a nose dive after a few weeks on the job without interesting projects to work on. This is why it’s essential to brainstorm project ideas before interns show up for their first day of work. With a bag of ideas to pull from, once you get to know an intern’s interests and strengths you can decide on assignments that most benefit both parties. After all, you never know what type of student you’ll get – you could have the overachiever that turns projects around more quickly than you expected, and the last thing you want is to be caught empty handed.
Managers may find that interns require a unique set of management skills. In general, today’s interns like to understand everything. Try to level with interns and explain why a particular task is important to the work you’re trying to accomplish and how it will help prepare the intern for the future (and yes, it is possible to draw parallels between the importance of photocopying and an intern’s long-term goals – think “attention to detail”). One great resource to recommend interns check out is Brazen Careerist, a Web site dedicated to providing career advice specific to Generation Y. As far as what you can do, there are three main areas that require managers to be flexible when working with interns that I’d like to hit upon briefly – teamwork, writing and time management skills.
There’s no “i” in teamwork. College typically fails to adequately prepare students for the type of teamwork they’ll encounter in the workplace. This is a challenging obstacle for interns who are with you for a short period of time because learning how to successfully work with others comes from experience. One suggestion for speeding up this process is to involve interns in team meetings so they can see the process first hand. Another approach is to break down an old project as an example and go through it step-by-step with the intern. Show how each team member was instrumentally involved, what the expectations were and how deadlines were met. This might take a little prep work upfront, but it will pay off, especially when interns genuinely understand the consequences of not meeting a deadline.
College papers vs. business writing. Interns are accustomed to writing for college assignments and the transition to business writing is not always smooth sailing. College writing often focuses on personal experiences and beliefs, and term papers can go on forever (or so it seemed at the time), whereas solid research translated as concisely and concretely as possible is more common in the workplace. A suggestion from one of our summer interns was to create mini writing assignments and go through them piece-by-piece with each intern to explain how and why each edit is necessary and discuss alternative ways to reach the same goal. It will likely take more than one run before interns feel comfortable writing his way, but managers can help this transition by giving consistent feedback that includes the reasoning behind edits. If your interns need a little extra help with the basics, you might suggest they read or re-read Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. And lastly, in the words of one wise intern – don’t let a project drag out with endless edits. If it’s not working, cut the project loose and start anew.
Juggling Priorities. Time management is a skill, and oftentimes one that interns don’t possess at the same level we come to expect from our regular employees. Managing a full-time college schedule, part-time work and extracurricular activities might seem like “practice” for the real world, but it’s not. The lack of syllabi and constant re-prioritizing are reality in the workplace. This is all new to most interns and your job is to help facilitate that change in expectations. Try a good ol’ In-Basket Exercise with your interns. Make it fun, and don’t be surprised if you find you’re helping them through the entire thought process at first. Encourage your interns to ask questions, but to try and work it out themselves before they ask. The goal should be to guide them to a point where they can say, “Now that I have been assigned Task A, which you have identified as a priority for today, I just want to make sure I’m clear that I’ll be shifting yesterday’s project to next week, is my understanding correct?” Right on!
Wrap-up. What wisdom have your interns imparted to you this summer? If you haven’t already done so, carve out a time to sit down with your interns and ask them to share their experiences and any suggestions they may have. Interns’ feedback can be invaluable, but you’ll never know unless you ask. Make sure you also follow up by telling them how their work contributes to your department’s goals and objectives, and how the skills they learned over the summer will help them in years to come.