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The Iffy Intern Experience

Many college students head to Daytona Beach or Cozumel for spring break and a welcome relief from the pressures of school. But some students forgo the traditional trek to sunny destinations in favor of starting the search for an internship and, they hope, getting a leg up on the competition. Some will go so far as to pay search firms fees that range from hundreds to thousands of dollars to find them the perfect corporate internship. But buyer beware. Internships can be a mixed bag, with potential for opportunity as well as disappointment for students and employers alike.

It’s a reasonable expectation that internship programs are essential recruitment avenues for companies facing looming talent shortages, especially with the beginning of the retreat of the Baby Boomers from the workforce. And students view internships as crucial networking opportunities, a chance to make important contacts and “test drive” an employer and a job. “The internship gives both the employer and the student the opportunity to ‘try each other on for size,’” says Marilyn Mackes, executive director at the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE).

Internships can pay off for both groups. A 2006 NACE survey of 303 organizations found that employers offered jobs to more than seven out of 10 of their interns, and three-quarters accepted those jobs. It’s no wonder that such programs seem increasingly popular. A September 2006 survey by the Human Resource Institute (now the Institute for Corporate Productivity) found that none of the 46 responding organizations planned a decline in the number of co-op students and interns they would hire in 2007, but 37% planned an increase.

One respondent to the survey reported a “robust and popular internship program” that received 4,000 applications for 70 internships, noting that “meaningful assignments and exposure to senior management are essential parts of its success.” But another respondent expressed surprise that interns required so much coaching on how to properly present themselves in the workplace, including “how to dress and conduct themselves at work gatherings, and general professional decorum.”

These responses highlight key trends about internships: they’re increasingly appealing, but in some cases organizations as well as students may be ill-prepared for them. The United Nations, for example, recently acknowledged problems with its internship program. A 2006 survey of current and past interns conducted by the UN Independent Internship Network revealed that interns’ expectations were often not met. In fact, some interns left the UN with less favorable opinions about the organization following their internships than they had before they started. The Making UN Internships Work report, while highlighting many of the benefits of such programs, also noted, “Poor communication between supervisor and interns was seen as one of the core problems, which was also stated by almost one-third of the respondents, and among them, approximately three-quarters were disappointed with their situation.”

Such problems are not unique to the UN. In fact, the most common intern complaints are of disorganization, lack of training and supervision, the absence of meaningful work, and the perception that employees view interns as errand-runners and free labor, not team members. Some student newspapers even warn college students about the pitfalls of internships and call for closer monitoring of internship programs by college administrations, especially those for which students receive course credit.

“Since interns are at the bottom of the corporate food chain, many of their tasks are menial and some can be soul-crushingly repetitive. It can be hard to learn very much about an organization when all you are expected to do is Xerox papers and make coffee,” asserts Steven Blum in the GW Hatchet Online, an independent student newspaper at George Washington University.

Yet, students remain eager for internship opportunities, perhaps even too eager. Some prospective interns don’t mind paying search firms to land coveted internship berths for them. University of Dreams charges students from $6,499 to $8,999 to find them eight-week summer internships with companies such as Paramount Pictures and MTV Networks. The finder’s fee usually includes on-campus housing at a nearby university, meals, transportation to work, and other activities. The overarching message is that while good grades and community service are nice, contacts and money make a difference.

What can employers do to improve internship programs and outcomes? As noted by the UN’s study, communication seems to be key. Duration may be another key. The UN study noted that internships that are at least four months in duration tend to have more favorable outcomes, suggesting that the longer an intern spends with the organization, the more opportunity there is for real connection and engagement. Other important factors may be the better matching of intern candidates to employers and the cultivation of relationships and skill development.

“The IT industry in Malaysia and around the world demands more skilled IT workers, and yet we have a situation where many graduates are unemployed. I think one possible reason is a ‘mismatch’ of expectations from both perspectives,” says Hui Kiat Bin, Microsoft Malaysia customer partner experience director. Microsoft Malaysia launched an internship initiative in 2003 that partners Microsoft employees with students for mentoring and training. The “Student Ambassadors” are carefully selected and provided with online training, full sponsorships from Microsoft to pursue professional IT certifications, a one-year contract, mentoring with managers and executives, and the offer of a permanent position with Microsoft at the end of one year.

When they work well, internships can help close skill and expectations gaps, providing opportunities to employers and interns alike. But it’s clear that not all internships are created equal and that there’s much room for improving such programs both in the U.S. and abroad.

Documents referenced in this article include the following:

Blum, Steven. “Working for Nothing.” GW Hatchet Online, 2007.
“College Students Find Internships Can Pave Way to Job.” NACEWeb. October 25, 2006.
Fredrix, Emily. “Students Paying Internship Search Firms.” Yahoo! Finance [Associated Press]. March 6, 2007.
Human Resource Institute. Co-op Student/Intern Programs Practitioner Consensus Survey. St. Petersburg, FL: HRI, 2004.
Human Resource Institute. Co-op Student/Intern Programs Practitioner Consensus Survey. St. Petersburg, FL: HRI, 2006.
Making UN Internships Work for the UN. United Nations Independent Internship Network, 2006.
“Passionate About IT.” The Star Online (Malaysia), February 27, 2007.