An Ode to Interns

Figure 53 is my third (and hopefully final) internship of my college career.

At a time where internships are getting a lot of negative press, working here has made me think about my role as an apprentice in the workplace.

What exactly does it mean to be an intern? Am I actually being helpful or am I doing busywork? Do I bother the team with too many questions?

As an intern, you’re working in this strange fusion of collaboration, production, and guidance. You’re there to work, but at the same time, you’re there to learn.

And that can be the worst part. As a 22 year-old pursuing Interaction Design, I’m at a frustrating point of my young career. Sure, I’m ambitious and eager to work on new, challenging projects, but it doesn’t shake the fact that I’m just not there yet. I'm merely almost there.

I think other interns can resonate with this uncomfortable sentiment. I’m still, in the eyes of many older working professionals, just a kid, a kid with a BA and the hopes of maybe getting a relevant job after I graduate.

Luckily, my three-year-long experience as an intern has been awesome. Really, really awesome. I've learned how to love my craft, have fun at work, and draw inspiration from within myself. Moreover, I've learned what it's like to be managed by great employers.

This was not by accident.

So, you want to hire an intern?

So what about you? Are your interns getting the most out of their experience? Would they describe you as awesome?

If you're still unsure, you might want to consider the following.

An Intern is not a part-time Employee

I'm going to repeat that one more time. An intern is not a part-time employee.

This might sound like an obvious statement, but it's unfortunately an overlooked distinction. It's better to think of an intern as an employee in training, rather than someone to grab lunch or run the dishwasher.

One of the distinctions between part-time workers and interns is that part-timers don't need to be trained. For the most part, you tell them your projects, get them acquainted on the things you need help on and they get it done. Interns, however, require a bit more patience and direction. You will have to work around the things that they don't understand, or explain to them in a way that makes sense.

That being said, it's in your best interest to give them projects that are challenging, even if it takes them awhile to figure it out. Assure them that it is okay to ask questions, but to first Google things that they might not understand.

If you aren't willing to set aside extra time and extra money to help your intern navigate new, unexplored territories, you might want to take that "internship opportunity" listing off of your company website. Remember, they are not there to produce for you or your clients, they are there to learn.

Give Encouragement and Feedback

In addition to needing extra patience with your interns, you need to understand that interns are already under a lot of pressure. They are nervous, perhaps unsure about their futures. They simply lack the confidence and the sense of complacent well-being that full-time employees have.

Being a great employer, especially when it comes to interns, requires an emotional understanding of where they are coming from. But don't think of this as a disadvantage. Instead, use their sensitivity to your advantage by being honest with your words.

If they did something that you think is really great, tell them.

“I really like what you did there. Great Job!”

That's all it takes. It's these kinds of confidence-building comments that make your interns feel all warm and fuzzy inside. Soon enough, they'll build up the emotional momentum to keep pushing forward and working harder to impress you.

Conversely, if you don’t like the way your intern approached a project, view the mistake as a learning opportunity by being as honest as possible. Explain to them, in the most constructive way you can, that they did something wrong while giving them the space to enhance or fix it on their own.

"I like that header, but the color might be a bit off. Don't you think?"

Challenge them and force them to explain their decisions. The more they talk about and think about their work, the better and more confident they will become in developing it.

"What made you select this typeface?"

"Is there a reason the logo is the size that it is?"

Don't forget to check up on them as well. If you notice them struggling on a project, don't hesitate to ask them if they need any help. It's in your best interest as en employer to see if they're learning, understanding, and enjoying the work you assign to them.

"Are you stuck on anything?"

That phrase can go a long, long way. Many interns don't want to admit that they don't know how to do something in fear of being annoying, or getting in the way of real work. It also communicates to the intern that you care.

Dedicating as little a few minutes out of your day to your intern and his/her projects packs a huge punch of confidence, and gives them a reason to put extra effort into their work.

Respect & Value Your Interns

And for the love of all that is holy: pay them.

There's no legitimate reason that you could possibly have for not paying a working intern.

It's flat out wrong.

I had an interview with a pretty big firm here in Baltimore about a year ago. I took the time to go to their office (skipping class), only to find out after the interview that it was an unpaid gig. I kept my composure after hearing them confess that they wouldn't pay me, and in the moment, was actually pretty open to the idea.

I mean, this particular firm seemed really, really cool.

It was one of those hip new-media agencies with the high ceilings, wood floors, and young, tattooed employees plucking away at their projects.

"We're going to need you to skin templates for us. Can you come in 3 times a week?"

Wait, did I hear that correctly? Did they say this was an internship? Because, it's starting to smell like a part-time job, the unpaid kind.

"You'll get a bunch of experience in a really cool work place."

I bet.

Listen, if you're bringing an intern onboard, be prepared to teach. Many of us are getting college credits for internships, which means that work is essentially a class. I'm all for getting-your-hands-dirty, project-based learning, but to give interns work that other paid employees are already doing is just plain lazy (and illegal).

Pay them. Help them grow. Keep them smiling. Heck, they might even get good enough to actually start working for you.

That is, if you treat them well.

Final Thoughts

Of course, every person is different. Every student who applies for an internship will carry with them a multitude of different personalities and work ethics. Some will be a perfect fit, others might not be.

And while you can't mold every single intern into the perfect employee, you can manage them in such a way that is mutually beneficial.

You can train them to work smart, have fun, and help out on some things that legitimately help your business going forward.

As for me, I'll be sure to let you know when I get a job.

Luis Queral is a Design Intern at Figure 53