Last week I got my first “we’re looking for an intern” email of the year. It’s a regular request we all start seeing annually as spring breaks wrap up. But this time I stopped in my tracks. I thought about the millions of college students—who spent most of the past year with a half-assed COVID experience—out there trying to rustle up an internship so they can earn some precious work experience before graduation.
I put myself into their shoes and shuddered. This post is a reminder that they’re out there, they can be amazing, and they need our help now more than ever.
Feeling the flashbacks
My internships and first jobs are burned deeply into my memories, and I have a special place in my heart for the people and companies that gave me a shot. Way back in my college days I realized that I wanted to work in business, and kept hearing that summer experience was critical, yet going to school out of state made an internship search especially tough.
I got a tip that Temp Agencies were a great place to break in and I signed up with one. My first few assignments were far away from an office environment! I was assigned to pack boxes on a pork rind assembly line (a real thing in suburban Atlanta), then moved on to fold discarded women’s clothing at an outlet mall. A few weeks in I upgraded to an engineering firm where I sat in a small windowless room and made photocopies of schematics all day long.
Eventually I landed at a company where a member of the accounting team, Sheri Sands, secured budget for someone to do tedious paperwork for the company’s government contracts. Sheri was my first real boss, and she was amazing. I got to sit at an actual desk, engage with a broader work team, and while the work was tedious to her, it was new and fascinating to me. I learned quickly and asked for more and more work. I saw her smile as the pile of work shrank. At the end of the summer Sheri surprised me with an amazing reference letter as well as an invitation to return the next year. I ended up spending three total summers at the company, getting bigger responsibilities each time.
Flash forward nearly 30 years and I’ve got a daughter in college in a theatrical costume design major. During her first summer back my friend, Marty, took a chance on her for an internship at his company. She similarly took advantage of the break and had fun doing great work for him. At the end of the summer, Marty surprised her (and copied me) with a glowing letter of reference. I remember reading it on my phone while in an airplane—wiping away the tears of a proud parent.
But now we all know what has happened to the theater business, and my daughter is in Chicago searching for that next break in her last summer before graduation. She’s just one of many…
It’s a network-driven marketplace
I’ve had some amazing business results when hiring interns. Sometimes they are great temporary help for a team that’s growing or needing a break for vacations. Other times I’ve had success plugging interns into nagging issues or opportunities that just need some focused attention. I love using internships as a summer-long interview and handing great people an offer to return full-time the next year. Managing interns is a great way for your rising top performers to learn how to direct and train others. And it’s also just a shot-in-the-arm for the spirit of the office to have some wide-eyed and eager young people sitting beside your team for a few months.
But the market is challenging for both sides. Most companies don’t know what their needs will be until much closer to the summer, and the traditional job posting and interview model doesn’t make as much sense. Students don’t have the networks or experience the rest of us do, and they still have school work to focus on.
As a result, many internship matches come from our networks. Hence the “Do you know anyone…?” questions we get from family, friends and acquaintances.
We can make a difference
This is a call for all of us to lean in a little more this year to help the interns in our networks find opportunities. Aside from listening more closely to the asks—let’s proactively ask the students (and parents of students) in our lives what they are looking for and how we can help. Let’s use our Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts to offer up the assistance and make introductions.
And if you’re at a company—which most of you are—can you do something to create internship opportunities that don’t currently exist? Let’s be honest, the cost is a rounding error for the vast majority of companies. And this is not just a good deed; it’s your opportunity to free up some time, uncover a new insight, win a new client, or just re-energize your team.
Over at Hearty we are super early and still in testing, but we are doing a few things to help. First, we’ve created Leaderboards and are encouraging our members to add and invite students they know in Marketing, Finance and Software Development to join and gain visibility. I’m personally leading sessions with students at the University of Cincinnati and Miami University over the next two weeks to better understand their needs and how we might help.
There’s an amazing group of students out there just waiting for their shot to break into the working world. If you can help, they will cherish the chance forever—and continue paying it forward with generations of graduates to come.