I became an intern in my 30s—and learned what employers can do to stop exploiting cheap labor

Employers need to take their duties toward interns seriously.
Employers need to take their duties toward interns seriously.
Image: Reuters/Punit Paranjpe
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My first internship was almost 15 years ago. Over the course of a decade, I worked my way up from that position to managing teams of 50 or more.

Then, pushing 40, I decided to change fields and threw myself to the bottom rung of an entirely new career ladder. When I was in my 20s, I’d learned to put my head down and work—hard. Now that I’m at a wildly different stage in my development as a person, I’m able to see that there are two sides to the equation of what makes for a successful internship.

An intern’s role is to grind, to impress, to make his or her mark and land that dream job. But too often, employers neglect to consider how they might return interns’ contributions in kind. Given that internships have emerged as a standard audition for entry-level jobs in fields from business to media, it’s incumbent upon employers to think of interns as more than just a source of cheap labor—but as their future workers and colleagues.

The employer is duty-bound to teach, offer counsel, and provide value for a person’s donation of time and effort. We’ve all started at the bottom. Those that find their way to the top often owe their success, at least in part, to the influence of a more experienced person who took the time to guide them.

What’s in an intern?

US universities have been experimenting with pairing students with businesses for decades. Northeastern University is believed to have started the first such program back in 1909, with college students working at companies during the semester. As Time explains, so-called co-op programs took off during the 1960s: “From 1970 to 1983, the number of colleges and universities offering the programs increased from 200 to 1,000.”

Early on, the benefits and obligations involved in an internship were understood by both parties. Andrew Wender Cohen, a history professor at Syracuse University, told Forbes, “Apprenticeship would have gotten you into a guild, in the early 20th century, would have gotten you into the union.” The co-op model places the student in a company and guarantees compensation, and clearly outlines expectations and obligations for both parties.

Sometime around the 1980s, according to Forbes, businesses and government really caught on that they could get well-educated talent for little to no cost. The interns got real-world job experience, maybe some college credit and minimal pay, and if everything went really well, a job.  

There was just one problem: With all of the expectation on the intern, and almost none on the employee, the modern internship experience has become a very one-sided affair.

Unequal downside

Companies don’t have a lot to lose if an internship fails to take. If an intern turns out to be a disaster, they might waste a bit of a manager’s time or lead to a couple of crossed signals, but but it’s easy enough to whittle away the intern’s responsibilities so they can’t do much harm. The company can also end the internship early, of course.

But interns can incur lasting damage if there’s not someone on the other end dedicated to holding up the employer’s end of the bargain. A bad internship experience, or one that fails to provide reciprocal value, can may turn promising talent away from the field altogether.

Consider the results of a 2010 study published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior. Researchers from the University of Georgia, the University of Texas at Arlington, and the University Wisconsin-Milwaukee asked 238 protégés, who self-identified as being a part of a mentor/mentee relationships, about the content and quality of those relationships. The researchers found that if the protégés had negative feelings about the mentor/mentee relationship, they were less likely to continue not only at that company, but in the field as a whole.  They also had greater incidences of withdrawal and depression at work.

How many great ideas, and how many gifted employees, were stifled because no one took the time to fulfill a company’s obligations? And almost as important, how many career years have been wasted on the wrong path just because someone neglected to sit down with an intern and talk candidly about the intern’s strengths and weaknesses, or even more simply find out what the intern is passionate about?

It’s easy to dismiss the feelings and concerns of interns. Everyone has a horror story about dealing with bad bosses and demeaning grunt work in the early days of their career. We think, “I got through it, and so can you.” But there’s more upside—for both mentors and interns, as well as the companies that pay them—to investing fully in these relationships.

Make the inorganic happen organically

Brad Johnson is a psychologist at the department of leadership, ethics, and law at the US Naval Academy, and author of books like The Elements of Mentoring. He tells Quartz that the best mentor relationships happen organically.  “Almost everybody says let’s make it organic and informal,” says Johnson. Ideally, existing staff would mix and mingle with any new crop of interns and effortlessly assimilate newcomers into the fold—with everyone pairing off automatically into the best mentoring relationships.

The problem, however, is that “when an organization relies exclusively on natural informal mentorship development, you find lower rates of mentoring,” Johnson says.  Most people need an extra push.

To get around this, Johnson says organizations need to provide structure. That means creating “opportunities for interaction and hopefully that increases the rate of those organically evolving relationships.” For example, companies could implement a system where interns can reach out to senior staff members for lunches and coffees and encourage existing staff to participate. Companies could also design and schedule team-building exercises in which interns and staff are given opportunities to interact and collaborate with each other.

However it’s done, explains Johnson, all companies and institutions can benefit from facilitating a culture that encourages, promotes, and nurtures these kinds of relationships.

Kill the imposter

In my own case as a fellow at Quartz, I was lost until I published my first article. The subject meant a lot to me, but I was paralyzed with nerves leading up to and through its publishing, and incredibly self-conscious for days after its release.

But the support I got from people I worked with, some of whom I’d never even met, let me know I hadn’t gotten to where I was by mistake. As someone constantly questioning my position, even an emoji reaction to a stray comment meant the world to me. 

Not everyone is so lucky. As far as things a mentor can do to screw up, “one of the biggest ones is just flat-out mentor neglect,” says Johnson. Had I been left to wallow in my feelings of not belonging, or had I been paired with someone who didn’t reach out and check in regularly, I could have been trapped feeling like an imposter forever.

Johnson says that, even if all a mentor does is help people overcome their early-job jitters, it can be enough to tilt the relationship needle into the positive. “When you do surveys of mentees that have been well mentored and asked, ’What did your mentor really do for you,’ it often wasn’t any high-tech teaching or anything else,” he says. “It was just, ‘he or she helped me get over the imposter syndrome.’”

Give tough feedback, too

Neglect can manifest in two ways: failing to provide positive feedback, but also hesitating to name the negative. Once, I wrote for an editor who’d only respond if he liked what I sent, and only then to tell me to, “Do it.” Otherwise, I’d hear nothing. No insight as to how I could get better, no window into a path to improvement. The silence made it clear that I’d done something wrong, or not enough right, but because I didn’t know where I was falling short,  it was harder to make progress.

“The primary obligation of a really good mentor,” Johnson says, “is to help in unearthing the dream.”  That means plenty of affirmation, saying to the mentee from time to time, “We made a really smart move in hiring you.” But it also means that if an intern wants to go after the unreachable, is not up to a given task, or keeps making the same mistakes, a mentor should tell them so directly, and guide them in a more appropriate direction. If necessary, a mentor can even help point them toward an entirely new pursuit altogether.

Johnson says that mentors don’t do their interns any favors by sparing the rod. People at the start of their careers need to get constructive feedback whether it’s good or bad. After all, he says, “if not the mentor, then who?”

In trials by fire, everyone gets burned

It can be tempting to push interns straight into the deep end. But in terms of actually fostering positive growth in people, “The whole notion of just saying I’m your mentor now, you go figure it out, deal with it, I’m not sure that’s helpful for most folks,” says Johnson. “I usually speak more in terms of the concept of titration.”

Titration is a medical term referring to ratcheting up to the right dose when a patient’s tolerance to a medication is unknown. You start out with something small, and methodically increase the dosage to assess what a patient can handle. Applied to internships, this is about figuring out a person’s tolerance for challenges and stress.

“If there’s somebody that hates public speaking,” says Johnson, “I’m gonna have you engage with me in some presentations initially, then I’m going to start creating the opportunities where you have to speak even though it’s uncomfortable. I like the gradual exposure to stress, and challenge and discomfort, versus the all or nothing, sink or swim.”

Why invest at all?

The advantages that a good mentoring experience offers to an intern are obvious. “The literature at this point is irrefutable across context and organizations, those who have mentors, just do better,” says Johnson, “They’re happier, they make more money, they get more promotions.” A review of the literature on mentor-mentee relationships found that “role-modeling, sharing experience, and increasing self-esteem are benefits of mentoring that could apply to any discipline or specialty.”

What’s not so clear is what’s in it for the organization to sponsor and facilitate these relationships, and for the more experienced workers who dedicate the time to interns.

On the organizational side, better worker satisfaction means better workers. If internships are glorified auditions, it makes sense to instill a sense of company loyalty right from the get-go. If an intern feels an organization’s dedication to them, that the organization is committed to passing down institutional knowledge, the intern will try even harder to impress and will think twice before taking their talents elsewhere. Companies that focus on providing a good experience for their interns are companies that are able to build and nurture talent from within.

Mentoring an intern can have big benefits for individual employees, too. There are obvious professional benefits: an opportunity to cultivate and grow one’s network, a chance to gain recognition within a company as someone who has a knack for fostering and developing talent. But there are psychological benefits to this kind of service as well.

One study examining the mentor/mentee relationship among nurses at a medium-sized hospital in Sweden found that mentoring relationships “strengthened a person’s positive self-assessment, which included involvement, influence, individualization, and trust.” Another 2005 study published in the Journal of Gerontological Social Work found that Big Brothers and Sisters who “mentor at-risk youth in the community experience the pleasure of reinforcing [their own] meaning through being appreciated and recognized as a valuable person.” In essence, mentoring makes people feel valuable and relevant.

So the next time you spot a wide-eyed neophyte, take a moment to say hello. Invite them to lunch with you and your gang. A simple greeting in the hallway or a quick compliment on their work can provide a world of benefits—to the intern, to you, and to your company as a whole.