Internships: Not Just for Coffee Makers and Photocopiers

Organizations that don’t offer internships are missing a huge opportunity to improve.


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A college student shared with me a joke about his sibling’s internship with a major Midwest-based employer: “My brother is spending the summer learning how to make coffee and copy documents.” His brother’s primary responsibilities with that company were to ensure the coffee was always hot and abundant, and to do grunt work for his superiors, a group comprised of everyone else in the office.

What a major missed opportunity, I mused, both for the intern and his employer. This past August, I attended the Milwaukee Intern Summit, an event planned and hosted by one of our companies. The day proved fascinating.

The group’s members were as diverse as they were similar. Among the attendees were college-aged interns employed by organizations spanning the economy, including finance, technology, investment management, distribution, food production, manufacturing and more. Some interned in accounting, marketing and finance departments, and the group even included a law school student (nicknamed “Lawyer Guy” by his fellow participants) who interned with the legal department of a Fortune 500 industrial employer.

Following a thought-provoking presentation by Todd McLees, CEO of Pendio, on the topic of technology and work, the interns got down to work themselves. Each stood before the group and shared a bit about their employer and then discussed what they learned during their internships.

Consider the following lessons gained from their summer of work that demonstrate the huge value a well-structured internship provides to both the intern and the employer.

One young woman who spent her summer putting together a display honoring Warren Buffett, Berkshire Hathaway’s chairman and CEO, pointed to the concept of the ‘American Tailwind,’ the topic of a recent Berkshire Hathaway annual shareholder letter. In the letter, Buffett noted that the $115 he invested in the stock market at the age of six would have grown to over $600,000 today, had it been placed in a no-fee S&P 500 index fund. That same sum would only have increased to $4,200 had it been invested in gold. He used this story to illustrate the tremendous power of the U.S. economy, a great lesson for an intern working in an investment management company.

Another suggested that her internship really pushed her into new territory and some unnerving situations. Her single greatest lesson during her internship was the importance of being comfortable being uncomfortable. A college student by the name of Kayla learned the power of communication. Lawyer Guy said the three biggest lessons from his internship were that organization is key, every employee must provide real value, and a company accomplishes much more when team members collaborate.

Perhaps many of us take for granted that we should be on time for meetings, not interrupt others, communicate clearly and stick to an agenda, but a student shared that learning how to act in a business meeting was a major benefit of his internship.

A college student, who spent her summer working in the product design group of a large consumer products company collecting and analyzing customer feedback, shared how her employer used the data provided by its customers to guide decisions about new product offerings.

The rapid speed at which industry moves was referenced by another who was amazed at how his employer set deadlines and expected its employees to meet them. “I had no idea business moved as fast as it does,” he observed.

One intern spent his summer cycling through his employer’s multiple departments, moving from marketing to finance to customer service to operations. “Every department has its own view and perspective of the company,” he noted. “It was really cool to see how they differed.”

On a related note, another member of the group appreciated the opportunity to learn how a company and all its team members work as a whole to accomplish a common goal, even though the company is made up of several individual departments.

The interns’ employers were also welcomed to attend and observe the event as it unfolded. Following the presentations on the greatest lessons the interns had learned, one of the employers made a point I found extremely insightful. She began by reflecting on the power of the keynote presentation about how technology continues to transform the workplace. She then noted that she was encouraged that the greatest lessons shared by the interns related much more to interpersonal skills, communication, teamwork and etiquette than they did to technology. According to these students, in an age where our every moment seems to be infused with technology, the best lessons offered by an internship related to the continuing importance of interpersonal relationships and communication.

My four main takeaways from the day? First, organizations that don’t offer internships are missing a huge opportunity to improve and to equip young people with valuable professional skills. Second, those that do offer internships should ensure that they are the kind that produce lessons such as those shared above, and that they’re not just creating better coffee makers and photocopiers. Third, internships teach students even more than I knew, and intern-aged students should strongly consider interning.

Finally, these young people fueled my optimism for the future of the U.S. workforce.