How To Make Internships Win-Win

Posted by IAB Australia On November 27, 2014

After years of rejecting applications for internships, this year we decided that perhaps we’d ‘give it a go’. As soon as I’d made that decision, my mind was overwhelmed with rationalising the pros and cons of interns, which looked something like this:


As an employer and manager, I have ethics around the true nature of what an internship is. Personally, I don’t believe anyone should work for free. Just looking at the definition makes it pretty clear as to what is expected by both the intern, and the place at which an internship is taking place. I can’t refer to them as an employee, because it all depends on the type of work an intern will be doing, which determines if they are in fact an intern, or actually an employee.

At the risk of sounding old fashioned and boring, I don’t want an intern doing the photocopying, or making coffee runs, or picking up someone’s dry cleaning. I do hear ‘it’s all part of the job and experience’, but that can wear thin over time, as I know the expectation for an intern is to learn with on-the-job training. If they need to learn how to use a photocopier, then so be it, but sorting out the boss’s receipts for his expense claim is not part of the gig, in my eyes.

With the end of year approaching, and the influx of internship applications from both Australian and international individuals, I thought this guide on making an internship win-win may be useful for your recruitment and consideration process.

A Right and Wrong Internship Candidate

You need to determine what type of candidate you’re looking for. Are you going to nurture a young individual through your company’s processes and structure in the hope that they can prove themselves a useful employee, or are they just an extra pair of hands that can ‘do stuff’ for 3 months but there’s no future role for them? This can make a huge difference, as it did to us at Zuni. As a digital consultancy, I can’t offer an intern a huge amount of hands on experience in consulting when they barely know the basics of digital. This meant that I was really open to International Internships, as I knew I could provide an interesting, varied and cultural environment for a student who was not expecting to be the next strategist for the company. Our German intern, Dominic, certainly contributes to our culture on a daily basis and this has been one of the highlights for our team.

Managing Expectations

The idea of a cheap, or free, pair of hands joining the team can be attractive. But let’s be realistic. The majority of intern applications are from students looking for some hands on experience. Students, who have likely not worked in the industry before, or likely not worked in a professional capacity before, which leads to a misunderstanding of expectations based on capability. Interns may have never managed a communication channel like the email inbox with the same volume, prioritisation and expectation as those of us who’ve been working full time for some years now. There’s no understanding of email etiquette, tone or urgency; or even how to manage an online diary. Both parties need to be clear about how they’re going to communicate and what is expected of the role. For example, interns can do great research – but their level of research may be quite basic about a topic, because they are likely not to know anything about it, whereas a more senior individual will research a topic through the general basics and clutter and uncover the insights. Interns won’t do this.

Structural Success

The same way an employee has a job description, an intern needs some direction on what they are meant to be doing. This could be in the form of a job description, or a list of scheduled roles & responsibilities, daily tasks or contribution measurement. Whatever form, it needs to be structured, so that the intern can see what they are learning and for the placement organisation to keep track of what they’re teaching. If internships are about learning, placement organisations need to make sure they are actually giving the intern a chance to learn, with actions and tasks of real value. One of the best structures is an actual step-by-step guide on how to complete tasks within the role and responsibilities, which can then provide the framework for questions as the role is actually being carried out.

Our intern has been included in our business in the same way an employee is, from his first day. Dominic completed our usual induction process, which meant he understood our business and who does what in it. This means when he answers the phone, he knows how to qualify a call and then how to redirect it. Each task has been accompanied with some direction on how to complete it, how to feedback on it, and how to manage the increasing requests from the team.

Two-Way Feedback

Interns are not just meant to suck it up. In fact, it’s a great insight into the culture of an organisation to hear, directly from them, how they’re finding their time with you. I was delighted to hear from Dominc that out of the three business internships he’s participated in, he feels that he’s learnt the most of his time with us. On the flip-side, teaching Dominic Time & Priority Management is something I identified quite early in this time with us, as there was definitely a list of tasks forming, but no prioritisation or urgency applied to any of those tasks. Easy fix – we just communicated expectations and managed those expectations through support, training and teaching.

A motivated, enthusiastic and willing intern really does have a lot to offer a company. If employers can see through ‘free labour’ attitudes, they will soon find that their contribution to our next generation of work force, of leaders, or employers, can be influenced by their experience and skills. Graduates are not entering the workforce with the relevant skills and necessary experience to undertake entry level positions. Hands on experience is the best way to learn new skills, however it’s nearly impossible to get that hands on experience in the first place. Employers need to embrace the intern and never look back. I did.

Valentina is co-owner and Client Relationship Director at Zuni.

IAB Australia

IAB Australia is the peak trade association for online advertising in Australia. As one of over 43 IAB offices globally and with a rapidly growing membership, the role of the IAB is to support sustainable and diverse investment in digital advertising across all platforms in Australia.