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Making internships and co-op work terms meaningful

Engaging interns while also considering the needs of longstanding employees
According to a recent study conducted by Lloyds Banking Group in the U.K., 53 per cent of 18 to 30 year olds surveyed said more than half of the work during their internships consisted of menial tasks like printing and photocopying documents. Shutterstock

By Brian Kreissl

According to a recent study conducted by Lloyds Banking Group in the U.K., 53 per cent of 18 to 30 year olds surveyed said more than half of the work during their internships consisted of menial tasks like printing and photocopying documents. Eighty-three per cent of respondents believed their employers were the main beneficiaries of the programs.

Ensuring that internships are meaningful and engaging is extremely important in order to provide development opportunities to interns and help them acquire the skills required by today’s employers. The goal of an internship is not simply to have someone act as a “gopher” by completing menial work.

On the other hand, recent graduates these days probably have an advantage over generation-X employees like me when we first entered the workforce because employers today tend to care more about ensuring young people’s early career experiences are meaningful. There are a lot more co-op and internships available to students and recent graduates, with the result that more graduates now come into the workforce with relevant work experience already under their belts.

Employers really care about providing meaningful and engaging work to recent grads and even co-op students. However, when employers first started caring more about engaging recent graduates and younger employees, it seemed a little unfair to me because that wasn’t our experience when we came of age.

I remember thinking about how many people had been with the organization for years and were chomping at the bit looking for more responsibility and would have practically given their eye teeth to gain some of the experience given to co-op students, interns and recent grads. It seemed like they were given more meaningful opportunities than we were, even after we had been in the workforce for several years.

I mention this not out of bitterness or to have a go at millennials based on tired and unfair stereotypes, but mainly because employers back then were wrong not to care about trying to engage recent graduates and younger workers in general. Things started getting better about 10 or 15 years ago, and the introduction of more co-op and internship programs was definitely a good thing.

Nevertheless, my experiences and observations show how employers should also be mindful of the desires and ambitions of older, more experienced employees. There is no point trying to bend over backwards to give new graduates meaningful experiences when such opportunities aren’t provided to equally talented and credentialed longstanding employees.

Paid internships and legal compliance

With all of the controversy surrounding unpaid internships in recent years, it is important to be legally compliant and ensure internships are paid where the governing legislation mandates that be the case. At least in some jurisdictions, employment standards legislation exempts interns from having to be paid the minimum wage only if the program is through an educational institution and the employer derives little to no benefit from the intern’s services.

That last part seems a little bit strange to me. Surely, if someone is only observing or acting as a gopher by getting coffee and doing photocopying, the value of the internship would be greatly diminished.

Therefore, it is often likely a good idea to pay interns if an organization has them doing meaningful work that is of value to the employer. It is better for the interns and is certainly the more ethical approach from the employer’s perspective.

Nevertheless, people should be required to pay their dues at least to some extent, and employers need to recognize the value of wisdom and experience. So, how can employers balance the needs of interns and young employees with those of more longstanding and older employees?

For one thing, internships should be open to people of all ages. It is also important to have other types of programs such as special projects, temporary secondments and stretch assignments to allow people to learn and grow well into the middle and even late stages of their careers.

It might also be a good idea to ensure that co-op and internship programs include a balance of real and meaningful experiences and some more routine tasks as well as learning and development opportunities through on-the-job training, observation and facilitated learning sessions. Internships shouldn’t just be grunt work, but nor should they be so engaging and complex that longstanding highly-qualified employees are envious of the opportunities being provided to students and recent grads.

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Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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