My first internship was the summer after my sophomore year of college. It was an unpaid, part-time position at a staffing firm, and my days consisted of updating spreadsheets, watching the clock, and surreptitiously texting under my desk. I hated it, but I wanted to have more than “waitress” and “caramel apple salesperson” on my resume – even though those jobs taught me far more about building communication skills and work ethic.
Like many of my peers, I saw the internship as an important rite of passage for competitive graduates and possibly the key to full-time employment. 61% of American college students will complete an internship before they graduate, and some European countries like Italy and Spain have recently changed their labor laws to accommodate for interns.
A recent study found that an undergraduate internship was more important to getting a job than major or GPA, even as long as three years after graduating. More than 1/3 of graduate vacancies in Britain are filled from firms’ own internship programs, and LinkedIn found that more than 25% of interns in its network progress to full-time jobs at the companies where they intern (The Economist).
The apparent value of an internship is so high that many are willing to pay rather than be paid. Nearly half of interns in America remain unpaid, even after high-profile lawsuits at places like Hearst Corporation and Fox Searchlight Pictures challenged the legality of the unpaid internship. Some interns pay fees to universities to earn college credit in place of wages. Others head to firms like the Washington Center to buy internships for thousands of dollars.
But is it worth it?
Having been unpaid and underworked in one internship (see above), underpaid but well-trained in another (reporting for a local newspaper), and finally landing a great internship at SAP, I have seen first-hand how an internship experience can make or break your perception of an industry and a company.
Internships should follow a framework proposed by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman his new book. He says employment should be an alliance – a mutually beneficial deal in which the employer and employee add value to each other.
Internship programs can be hugely beneficial for firms. Interns bring fresh perspective, additional support, and the chance to test out top young talent. And if interns are fairly paid and able to learn from meaningful projects, they come away with an enhanced understanding of the industry and a positive perception of the company.
SAP hires hundreds of interns every year. Some, like me, are lucky enough to see internships turn into full-time employment. But we need to do more to ensure the long term value of each and every internship. This month SAP’s Global Corporate Affairs (GCA) team launched a new rotational program, piloted in the US. Five talented interns will spend the next year rotating among GCA’s different teams, from Media Relations and Employee Communications to Corporate Social Responsibility and Content. We will provide them with learning opportunities across all facets of communications at SAP – real projects that will add value to both the business and our team.
This rotation framework is an example of what Hoffman calls a “Tour of Duty,” a specific and meaningful mission with a realistic time horizon. For us, the key to success will be for both sides to recognize and achieve mutual value. It’s all part of a crucial shift in how we think of interns: by committing to the interns of today, we help to ensure a loyal, engaged, and capable workforce of tomorrow.