Marketing Interns—The Uncle Sam Scam

Last summer, my college-age son was lucky enough to land a summer internship at a manufacturing company in Southern California. Considering there were over 100 applicants, he was thrilled to have been selected for a position where he could demonstrate his newly learned marketing skills. And as a college Junior, he was excited with the promise of full-time employment upon graduation. He started the job with relish, and 4 and a half months later went back to college feeling on top of the world.

Last summer, my college-age son was lucky enough to land a summer internship at a manufacturing company in Southern California. Considering there were over 100 applicants, he was thrilled to have been selected for a position where he could demonstrate his newly learned marketing skills. And as a college junior, he was excited with the promise of full-time employment upon graduation. He started the job with relish, and 4 and a half months later went back to college feeling on top of the world.

So he was stunned when he discovered this week that there was NOT a full-time position available to him this summer. Instead, he was offered a part-time, minimum wage position with, again, the promise of potential full-time employment at the end of the summer.

When he pushed back and suggested that his long hours last summer meant he had already been “trained” and could hit the ground running and therefore it might entitle him to a little bit more than minimum wage, he was told that he should consider himself “lucky” to have the part-time job offered to him when last year over 50 applicants applied for the open position. In other words, this organization has no strategy in place to hire, train, and groom future employees. Instead, they hide behind a summer internship as a way to get free labor for the summer, lower their overhead expenses and avoid paying Uncle Sam for payroll and other taxes.

While I realize my sons’ experience may be the exception, I was disgusted by this company’s behavior and wondered how many other organizations build and run internship programs properly (and with good intention)?

Internships are a way to give back to our youth—to help them take their text-book based learning and put it into action. And it’s a chance for us, as employers, to invest in the future of our business.

Thinking of leveraging an internship program for your business? Consider these 3 business rules:

1. Establish Clear Program Objectives
What does your company hope to gain by hiring an intern? If the answer is “free labor,” you’re on the wrong track. Program objectives might include:

  • To provide students with the opportunity to test their interest in <> before a permanent commitment is made.
  • To help students develop skills in the application of theory to practical work situations.
  • To help students adjust from college to full time employment through the acquisition of good work habits and a sense of responsibility.

2. Develop a Job Description
Just as you need to create job descriptions for any full- or part-time employee, interns need a job description in order to help you and the entire organization understand expectations. Since misaligned expectations often lead to conflict, it’s important to make sure your intern is set up for a successful experience. That means everyone needs to be on the same page as to the responsibilities of the position. (I’ve been part of an organization that used their interns as the “go-fer” and the interns spent their time scurrying back and forth to Starbucks … not exactly the marketing experience they expected when they were hired.)

3. Create Feedback Mechanisms
If you’re truly trying to help your interns have a positive learning experience, then you must provide them with feedback—and on a regular basis. Once they start, you need to train and keep training by encouraging questions (and lots of them), providing explicit instructions so they can get it right the first time, and by stepping back and delivering a bigger picture around the task at hand to help put it all into perspective.

Let me also add that you should never assume any kind of baseline office knowledge from your interns. We recently discovered that the youngest member of our staff (a 2012 marketing grad) didn’t know how to use several pieces of office equipment. It never occurred to us that making Xerox copies, sending a fax or adjusting a printer setting from “portrait” to “landscape” were skills we had gained through years of employment and were not a natural part of the knowledge base of a 22-year old!

And if you’re reading this, work for a company based in San Diego, are looking to hire a bright and determined college grad from a not-so-inexpensive UC school with heavy experience in teaching kids how to surf, just let me know. Oh, and it should include a paycheck.