With real jobs hard to come by, summer interns can't afford to make mistakes. Students must make their internships count — if not in pay, then in marketable experience, connections and maybe even a job offer. At the same time, employers have much to gain if they rise above viewing interns as free labor and seize the opportunity to gain insight into the future workforce. "You're getting the thinking of a generation you don't currently employ," said Mary Young, director of the University of Miami's Sanford L. Ziff Graduate Career Services Center.
Nationwide, more workplaces have interns this summer. According to a study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, employers planned to increase internship hires by 8.5 percent over last year. Nearly all planned to pay their interns — the average for bachelor's degree-level interns was $16.21 per hour, down slightly from the 2011 average of $16.68.
For employers, consider these recommendations to make the most of your college internship programs:
Know federal law. If you've brought on an unpaid intern, proceed with caution, says Larry Perlman, an associate in the Miami office of Foley & Lardner, a firm now defending employers in lawsuits involving internships. Unpaid internships are not about getting college kids to fill an open position or do mindless drivel for free. A recent surge in lawsuits has led the U.S. Department of Labor to release a new set of standards for hiring interns. "You must educate, supervise and train the student rather than using unpaid interns simply to improve the bottom line," Perlman says.
Let the education flow both ways. At the Riverside Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, social media manager Alex Vidal says he has taught Yoonjung Kang, a summer intern from nearby Embassy CES Language School, how to market a business using social media. But Kang, from Korea, has educated him, too. After Vidal included Kang in management meetings and encouraged feedback, she has shared her insight into the Asian market the hotel wants to court. It was her suggestion to create a presence on two social networks populated by the Asian market and to build rapport with certain travel agents, Vidal said. "We have listened to her long-term goals and encouraged this to be mutually beneficial."
Be inclusive. Viviana Planas, who oversees Royal Caribbean's RCL Emerging Leaders Internship Program, says she urges supervisors to include students in decisionmaking moments and seek their perspective. "Leaders sometimes don't realize a meeting might be insightful for a student," she said. "There is a lot of innovation and fresh ideas that students bring to table." This year, Royal Caribbean has hired 90 paid summer interns.
Give interns a task to own. At Florida-based Sushi Maki, owner Abe Ng urges his interns to complete a project from beginning to end over the eight-week period. This summer, an intern took on creating a direct mailer promoting the restaurants' bubble tea. "He's handled everything from design, to copy, to production, to marketing," Ng said. "I spent a very unproductive summer one year and I don't want my interns to feel that way."
Interns will want to consider these recommendations:
Be bold. Gregory Almonord, a rising junior at the University of Pennsylvania, said he has received that advice, and followed it. After two weeks at Royal Caribbean Cruises, he asked his supervisor in the revenue management department to help him network. "I asked if it would be possible for her to set up lunch meetings with higher-ups in other departments to talk with them about what they do." Seeing his enthusiasm, Almonord said, she agreed.
Take advantage of opportunities. Young at the University of Miami says she encourages her MBA students with internships to view even menial assignments as valuable learning experiences. "Sometimes what you think is menial is not. It's teaching you elements of a larger process you might ultimately manage some day." Young says if an opportunity helps you learn you don't like an area of operations or an industry, consider it worthwhile as well.
Make an impression. "Whatever is asked of you, do it as close to perfect or better," advises Adam E. Carlin, a director of wealth management at the Bermont/Carlin Group at Morgan Stanley Smith Barney. Even if your goal isn't necessarily a job offer, it should be to obtain a letter of recommendation, he says. Avoid hanging around complainers, make sure you know who the decisionmakers are and make a point to thank them for the opportunity to intern for the company. Give them your full name, where you go to school and tell them how excited you are to work for them, he says. "You are creating a reputation whether or not you want to work in that industry."
Find a mentor. Planas at Royal Caribbean says interns who stand out find people in the company to give them advice — sometimes even in completely different departments. "I have yet to have a leader say I don't want to meet with an intern. Most love the fact that a student wants advice."
Do more than asked. Caroline Ferris, an MBA student at the University of Miami, has what most of us would consider a dream internship. It's a paid summer post in guest services for Club Med's resort in Port St. Lucie. Ferris says she has managed to squeeze in some paddleboarding and sailing, but most of her free time she spends volunteering in the sales department. "I asked if I could come help them out. It helps me network and meet more people and broadens the skills I can put on my resume," she said. "Hopefully, if I move forward with the company, there will be more people who would endorse me."