Career coach: Employing interns

Kate SavageIn this week’s career coach column Kate Savage looks at the thorny issue of internships from an employer’s perspective.

Hi Kate. What are your thoughts on Interns? I’ve been put in charge of managing the process at my agency, but nobody seems to know if we have to pay and they all have different ideas of what the intern could/should do – can you help?

Ooh this is a Pandora’s Box…

I’d love to see an industry roundtable on this with HR, employers and interns – a no holds barred, but safe environment debate.

For now, let’s first caveat this with the fact that I am not trained in Law or HR and so can only offer my experience and opinion.

I think the grey area most often exists because people are not 100% clear on why they are offering an internship.

According to www.fairwork.gov.au, the mandatories of an unpaid internship are:

1. The person must not be doing “productive” work

2. The main benefit of the arrangement should be to the person doing the placement, and

3. It must be clear that the person is receiving a meaningful learning experience, training or skill development.

Personally I struggle to see how 1 and 3 can work together, but lets forget about the ‘pay debate’ for a moment and ask:

Why does your company have an Intern program?

Is it an employment funnel, someone to do the donkeywork, a genuine want to help people get a foot in the door, because it’s cheaper than an account executive?

My opinion is that having interns is a fantastic initiative. Not necessarily for the business, but for the employer brand, the industry and for the individual interns benefitting from it. If you’re doing it properly, having an intern actually adds an extra workload to whoever’s managing their internal success. In terms of being a buddy, a mentor and a manager until they get up to speed.

In terms of the process…actually that’s the whole point, there has to be a process.

One of my old agencies had a regular internship program. There was a process and a way of working that more often than not worked really well. With that foundation in place, it was up to the individuals to shine.

And years later, three of the interns I still talk to now. I was impressed with them then, I know they’ll do well wherever they are, and if I can help with that then I’ll do all I can.

There were other interns who I can’t remember now, and to be honest probably didn’t remember much past them leaving the building. And I’m a people-person so that’s a pretty impressive non-impact.

So let’s assume they’re going to be doing productive work – or what’s the point? – and assume you’re going to give them at least minimum wage.

Who are they?

What do they want out of the internship?

Like everyone, they need the opportunity to demonstrate their strengths.

Be aware that it can be intimidating, even for the extroverts.

And if you want these guys to get to know everyone while they’re there, help them with more than a rush round desks the first morning.

It’s bad enough being new. Imagine you’re new, it’s your first ‘office job’, and you’re 22 and an introvert.

Contrary to what I usually bang on about, interns do need managers. They need to be told what to do, because they’ve never done it before. Remember when you thought ‘copy’, meant to actually copy something rather than deliver some clever, witty writing? Some of these guys have never written a WIP, been to a client meeting or seen the ‘hour before a pitch’ rush… Assume nothing, remember they don’t know what they don’t know, and give them the space and the confidence to ask questions.

Then the mentor comes into play.

Why not treat them as an AE (or equivalent junior role depending on field). Make sure you know what they do and don’t know. Get out the job description and go through it together. If they’re good enough, this is their next role right?

That’s the stuff they should be learning and doing to really to be able to hit the ground running in their upcoming permanent role. And what better chance for them to learn about the different roles in agencies than to shadow each one. Again, they don’t know what they don’t know, so the movement usually reserved for grad programs could also be really beneficial here.

The thing is if you ‘don’t have time’ to train them and mentor the person, get a freelancer instead. Getting an intern is not the right move, for you or for them.

And if you are considering an unpaid internship, make sure you talk to someone like Fair Work Australia to get the facts beforehand.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.