What do I do with an intern?
November 6, 2008 11:25 AM   Subscribe

What do I do with an intern? he shows up next week.

The boss has hired an intern - I am guessing it is a son of friend - and he is giving him to me. What do I do with him? We are are a small five person office in Asia researching and investing in property. He is out of a US school and this is his first "job" He doesn't really speak the language and definitely cant read or write. So far I have thought I could get him to hold the other end of the tape, or go get lunch as long as I want western fast food, or err.. and that is about it. I have no experience with interns. Please think of some quasi legitimate tasks or tell me your intern experiences. I don't want to waste his time.
posted by priorpark17 to Work & Money (16 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
If it's a field that he's interested in, even if he's not getting "legitimate tasks" it's a good experience for him to be able to see how those types of companies work and what the field entails. Most schools don't properly prepare you for that.

I don't have any specific advice, but I wouldn't worry about wasting his time so long as he's taken the job because he's interested in property investment.
posted by InsanePenguin at 11:30 AM on November 6, 2008

Generally, I'd say offload some of your work to him. If he's already graduated, that should be less of a problem than if he were still in school. Think about what you did most days as an entry-level employee and give him tasks that you do now that fit that basic model.

Don't let him be bored, and don't give him only mindless work. I got an internship at [large multinational company] while I was still in school and my boss had no idea what to do with me; I spent most of my time reading novels from gutenberg.org. At the end of my internment there, I told them off and vowed never to go back. Boredom is probably the single worst thing that can happen to someone in that situation.
posted by backseatpilot at 11:35 AM on November 6, 2008

We used to get endless offers to intern at the small China journal I worked at; one thing we would do is only accept if we had a specific project that the intern could complete in their time with us so that they left having accomplished something. Ideally it would be something that required them to work on their own initiative with guidance, rather than having to be held by the hand and causing more bother than they were worth (though of course including them as part of the team). Even if it was only sorting out the piles of name cards we accumulated into a more coherent contacts database, people seemed to really like that.
posted by Abiezer at 11:37 AM on November 6, 2008

What do I do with an intern?

You could make a hat! Or a pterodactyl!

In all seriousness, interns are used significantly differently in the U.S. than they are in other civilized places. Here they are often used as unpaid lowbie grunts, and it really sucks. Were I an intern, I would want to use the experience to learn the business where I was interning. Give him a chance to do some research. Let him form questions, and guide him towards asking the "right" type of questions.

Also consider letting him use some of his time to learn the local language and culture, especially if he foresees seeing in that culture.

Or ya know...I really like the idea of origami interns...
posted by dejah420 at 11:44 AM on November 6, 2008

Research of any sort is a good task for an intern because it's usually time consuming and can be helpful though not absolutely necessary.

What makes an internship memorable are things to sit in on. Meetings, negotiations, conference calls, and field trips.

Maybe describe what it is you're doing at any given moment.

Also, he doesn't have to be "your intern" the whole time. Introduce him to other people. Encourage him to learn about the company structure so he understands how the business works. That might mean more administrative tasks one day, more managment type tasks another.
posted by abdulf at 11:44 AM on November 6, 2008

Give him mundane or repetitive tasks that are fairly straight forward. They can be things such as data-entry, courier, organizing work, labeling, and so forth. This will get him introduced to the company and it's inner workings. You could also force him to interact with some of the other employees and get a chance to see what their role is in the company.

Or, you can make up a small project for him to work on for the time he's there. The project can be based on a past real life project or it could be based off something that you're working on currently. For projects that you give him, you can let him ask you questions about it, but encourage him to think on his own feet by giving him some resources so he isn't always knocking on your door for help. Who knows, if he's good, you might actually learn a thing or two from him.

I suggest giving him real deadlines(even if the project is small) and enforce office rules with him. If he's late, admonish him like a real boss would.
posted by nikkorizz at 11:45 AM on November 6, 2008

He is there to do work. Do you have any work that you can give him so that his skills can be used. I assume you have seen his resume and maybe portfolio of work? If he is new to the culture maybe you should have him write a guide for those like him, who don't speak the language but want to look into things that your office offers.

Just don't waste his time or yours with crap work which embarrasses everyone involved. How do you know that he does not speak, read or write the language? Can he do copy review for you of your English material? Can he handle doing the documentation on the English speaking side of the house? Is he just interning to have a vacation or to really work? If he is just for fun well that takes care of itself while being there to work offers some opportunities for you to offload some of your work.
posted by jadepearl at 11:47 AM on November 6, 2008

1. Always give deadlines.
2. Mindless work is part of the job. Thank him for it ahead of time.
3. Give him more work than you think he can handle.
4. Explain why a task needs to be done.
5. Have a desk and a computer ready for him, and provide a list of resources by name (personnel, lunch spots, etc.)
6. Give him a crack at things that are above his level and then explain what he could do better next time.
posted by ewkpates at 11:58 AM on November 6, 2008 [9 favorites]

The first thing you should probably do is talk to him.

Interview him to find out what his interests are, what strengths he feels he can offer, what he wants to learn while he's there, and what his short and long term goals are -- like a job interview. You'll then know whether he'd be well suited to a research project, new business development, marketing, database work, IT, or whatever... He could be very bright and just need some guidance.

If he's keen and able, get him to start a project that you've been thinking about but don't have time to do.

If he really has no interest in being there, or if you question his competency level after the interview... there's always the mundane, repetitive tasks.
posted by kaudio at 11:59 AM on November 6, 2008

there's always the mundane, repetitive tasks

Such as inputting, formatting, and checking a contact list. Look each name up, correct spelling, address etc., find the phone and email, check and see if they work.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:26 PM on November 6, 2008

Find out about his interests first.

If he is interested in your field, or seems motivated in the least, have him sit in on as many meetings as possible, and put your calls on speaker for him to hear as feasible. Explain to him the basics of how your company works, and let him watch you at work.

Ask him to write up his observations about how your company does business. He can make it into a guide for any new hires down the road, or for future interns. Related: Ask him to brainstorm ways that things could be improved - maybe he notices everyone gets up a lot to go to the printer, and the printer could be closer, saving a combined several minutes of peoples' time each day? Then, have him in charge of rearranging whatever the system is so that, for example, the printer is moved closer to everyone - or whatever his suggestion was. Maybe he notices that one person has a particularly effective style of communicating? Have him tell you what he sees that works and doesn't. It's an invaluable chance to get an outside perspective. When he sees something he thinks doesn't work that you think really works well, it's a potential chance for you to learn to do things differently - and also a chance to instruct him on why you do things the way you do. The more he learns about the day-to-day workings of your business, the better equipped he will be to navigate any business, even if he is not interested in working in your field.

If he doesn't speak the language, one of his first tasks can be listening to an audio book and learning how to say basic things like that you are out of the office and will be back later, how many copies need to be made, what the cost is per unit of item that you might have him buy, etc. This will make him more useful to you after a few weeks, and will give him the invaluable opportunity to pick up some of a new language. You could even make part of his work day being a trip to a local free language class directed for people at his level of study (or lack thereof).

Do you have several research resources that you use? In the legal community, there are Westlaw, Lexis, and a ton of specialty resources. Some texts that we look for frequently are only available on one website or another, but we will sometimes forget which one. A handy guide to where frequently-accessed materials are located will help any forgetful teammates, and also help him learn, and help any new team members you hire down the road. Meanwhile, he will be learning how to fetch documents for you when you need them - since he will know what resources to use for what items.

Give him a lot of positive feedback on his work - more positive than negative. Express your appreciation for him and make it clear that your life is easier with his help - do not suggest that giving him work is more trouble than it is worth. Also everything Abdulf said. Also, cudos for you for being interested in making the most out of the experience for your intern, and for planning ahead to make it worth your while as well.
posted by lorrer at 12:52 PM on November 6, 2008

You don't have an intern - you have a minion! Suddenly, all your boring repetitive tasks can be offloaded. I did a co-op placement at an Aerospace company and I swear the 50 or so interns there (out of 1000 staff) kept the place running -- engineering documentation is a legal requirement but a pain in the ass.

Anyway as a veteran of six internships spread out over three companies, here's what makes intern experiences good for the intern:

- Welcoming the intern as a team member rather than "Joe the intern"
- Having a workstation with all appropriate accesses set up on day one
- An orientation at the beginning to meet the rest of the staff and hear what the company is about (similar to what you'd give any new hire)
- Weekly progress meetings
- Meaningful work that, while perhaps low-skill and repetitive, counts for something
- Projects that can be completed in the limited amount of time
- Presentations or reports at the end - something tangible the intern can take with them as a record of what they accomplished
- Along those lines, the more people the intern interacts with, the richer the experience

And here's what makes them bad:
- Working all alone with no social interaction
- Having no work to do
- Knowing your work is going in the garbage once you leave

Here's what makes an internship productive for the company:
- High expectations that are strictly defined (I expect you to accomplish X)
- Schedules and deadlines
- Giving the intern responsibility over a task
- Regular written progress reports
- Assigning a mentor to guide the intern

What makes it unproductive
- No supervision -> interns surf all day
- Interns shy and afraid to ask questions -> nothing gets done
- Interns don't assimilate into corporate culture -> leads to the above
- Low expectations -> low results

A lot of this depends on you, the mentor. It sounds like you are not really aware of your role as a mentor and how crucial you are. You're in a master-apprentice role here. Your intern will look to you for lots of things. Ideally the mentor could be someone other than the direct boss, but it sounds like that's not the case since you're such a small office. Anyway here's what a good mentor provides:

- Logistical support re: company ins and outs
- Gentle guidance on professional conduct - how to dress, how to behave in meetings, how to be assertive, etc, so the intern assimilates into the culture
- Informal HR-type meetings (how are things going, any problems, etc)
- Limited guidance in non-work life (helping with housing, navigating the local city) so that they can focus on their job

Hope this helps!
posted by PercussivePaul at 1:02 PM on November 6, 2008 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: This all very helpful. I am getting some ideas now - but between us it seems like a heck of a lot of work and I can see why the boss swerved it over to me.
posted by priorpark17 at 2:24 PM on November 6, 2008

Here's how I decide when to give something to an intern -- anytime I can spell out what to do
- in less than the time it will take me to do it,
- clearly enough that someone who doesn't know the field or the politics* can do it,
- and there's a way for their work and knowledge to get either incorporated into my work or fully recorded before they leave (if you can't find the file where they saved everything, or if only they know who they called, or if you can't remember their methodology making the research indefensible, their work essentially will get thrown away).

I explain why it is important to us, try to show them exactly what I'd like the results to look like or sound like, and then am grateful that they did it. As much as possible, I try to get Spring Intern to train Summer Intern in late May.

And while I hear other commenters saying "don't make it too easy, give them more than they can handle," and it's true that you want to inspire people to do their most and their best, it will take a fair amount of your time to explain things, and there really may be a lot that this person doesn't know, so it's best to work up to things. Don't take for granted that they know anything. They may not know how your organization talks about itself, how to use Excel, or anything about the real estate business.
posted by salvia at 5:05 PM on November 6, 2008

Give him mundane or repetitive tasks that are fairly straight forward.
posted by nikkorizz at 2:45 PM on November 6 [+] [!]

No, no, no, no, no! NO!

This is the kid's first foray into the adult world, and you're suggesting making him the office coffee boy & toner replenisher? HELL no!

No intern on earth wants what you've described. They want meat on their virgin resume; you're offering cold oatmeal. And it's boring.

An intern is (typically, not always) a bundle of youthful energy & excitement. Give them a chance to test themselves. Remember: they are on their first professional job every (probably), so their abilities aren't necessarily very high, and they may require (or at least benefit from) more supervision than a normal new hire, but give them something to do that's interesting, challenging, and above all, useful!

Yes, I've had interns. And they thanked me for demanding more out of them than their previous bosses had. Angie, Michelle, Steve, if you're out there - hope you're still having fun engineering cool shit!
posted by IAmBroom at 9:32 PM on November 6, 2008

Any intern who saw my routine tasks as "cold oatmeal" got booted out the door right quick.

I had two interns last summer, Cassidy and Naomi. I gave them both some dull data entry work (putting invoice details onto the computer.) Cassidy logged into Facebook, having decided that the invoices were beneath her. (Since the invoices were part of my regular job you can probably guess my reaction to that.) Naomi, on the other hand, would call over to me every few seconds asking for more details about what an invoice was for and how beneficial the purchase had ended up being to the project and how the project fitted into our plan for that season.

Naomi made the most of the opportunity and was so motivated nobody begrudged time training her, so we ended up using her on some big projects and I wrote her a glowing letter of recoomendation at the end. Cassidy continued to goof off and act superior and got canned a week and a half into the placement. An internship's what you make of it.

Having got the story out of the way, here are some of the things I've found helpful...

Give them a notebook at the start of the first day. Make sure they're able to take notes when you tell them people's names and what time lunch is and how to work the photocopier. The first day is information overload, so have them write stuff down.

In the beginning, be as chatty and friendly as your schedule permits. If your intern feels comfortable talking to you, they'll be more likely to come to you with questions than to screw something up out of nerves.

Explain to them how you got to where you are now from where they are now. Hearing other people's career paths is incredibly useful to an intern trying to find a way into an industry.

Let them shadow you. Take them into every one of your meetings unless there's a legal reason that's impossible. Encourage them to make notes. Allow time at the start and end of meetings to discuss things with them and answer their questions.

Get used to doing a cost/benfit analysis of tasks. Most things will take them time to learn and it's easy to say "Oh, it'll be quicker to do it myself," but tasks which recur frequently will repay the time spent training the intern.

Don't be afraid to use them for dull stuff. Learning that work is sometimes boring is a valuable lesson in itself. Also the only way you can invest time in training them and still get your own job done is by having them save you some time by doing your photocopying, filing, coffee-making, etc.

Try to have them do at least one thing which will have a physical or digital record that they can stick in a portfolio. If there's absolutely nothing suitable, have them writ a handover document for the next intern. That way you can see if there are any gaps or misunderstandings in their knowledge of your workplace and you'll have a convenient training manual should you get another intern dropped on you at short notice!
posted by the latin mouse at 10:30 AM on November 7, 2008

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