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Internships shouldn't be taken lightly

| Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Every year, several million students, career changers and other job seekers get internships in companies large and small.

Some of those employers — small ones in particular — won't offer internships ever again.

“It's just not worth it,” the owner of one small company in the service industry told me.

“I wanted to offer people the chance to learn, to expose them to our business and teach something,” the small-business owner said. “I hear about so many internships where you just do slug work like getting coffee. But I wanted to give them the opportunity to do meaningful work.”

This employer's complaint is similar to others:

• The interns are a drain, they say.

• They need babysitting.

• They don't understand how to be professionals nor seem to want to be.

• They don't think through problems and issues.

“We've had four at our company, and none understood anything about our business and how it works,” another small-business employer said. “They know nothing about the fundamentals. And they don't know how to conduct themselves.”

Was it ever worth it for these smaller employers to hire interns?

“One of my interns understood social media and technology — up to a point. That worked somewhat,” the employer said.

“But his lack of work ethic and professionalism detracted from whatever he did,” the employer said.

Age isn't the issue. Another employer described an older career changer who came to her asking for an internship at her company as “enthusiastic and gung-ho.”

“I gave him a project to work on and offered insights on how to approach it. There was tons of hand-holding. I gave him direction, suggested a handbook he could read in one sitting to help him with the basics. Weeks went by. He never read it and never seemed to grasp what we were doing.”

Another employer described interns as having “a casual attitude about my business.” Even if they had explicit deadlines, if they were working virtually — outside the company's office — they'd “just get to the job when they could.”

“I understand that college students lack experience,” said a small-business owner at a marketing firm. “Getting experience is one of the objectives of doing an internship. But they need to come to it with some basics like the ability to think and solve problems. At least have an interest in learning how to act like a professional.”

They also were lacking in another key area — communicating effectively.

Is it asking too much for prospective employees to demonstrate critical thinking and be open to learning professional behavior? Is it unreasonable for employers to expect to get something for their investment of time and money?

A new survey from the American Management Association found that a wide majority of executives surveyed say the ability to think critically and solve problems, communicate effectively, collaborate and be innovative and creative are highly valued at every level of their company.

In fact, these are their priorities for employee development, talent management and succession planning in the next one to three years.

Sounds like the employers who used to offer internships were simply trying to prepare future workers for the real world.

E-mail andrea@andreakay.com.

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