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The Intern: a value-maker or distraction-creator?

The Intern: a value-maker or distraction-creator?

Coffee maker and document filer. Two age-old stereotypes of the intern I was jokingly reminded of when telling friends and family about my upcoming internship with Altus Consulting. These stereotypes are no longer taken seriously, and internship programs have formed a significant part of many businesses’ talent development strategy for some time.

However, it is unfortunate that these programs are mainly synonymous with large financial services companies and not so much with smaller organisations. With internships now more important than ever following 2021 where less than 17% of students took part in an internship or work placement, an overall lack of internships amongst smaller organisations is alarming.

I fundamentally believe that that all companies, large or small, should endeavour to provide some type of internship program, not only for the benefit of the interns, but also for the benefit of their organisation. Indeed, if implemented and run correctly, internships can facilitate the growth for both the intern and organisation, and more significantly, help businesses future-proof their talent pipeline.

Growth for Both

A common misconception about internships is that the benefits of the program are one-sided in the intern’s favour. The business provides and the intern takes. I would argue that this doesn’t reflect the entire truth and internships should instead be seen as a chance of ‘Growth for Both’.

For the intern, the benefits are straightforward. Real-world experience with a financial services company, enabling growth both personally and professionally. Ensuring the intern can gain genuine experience, working either internally within the business or externally on client-facing tasks, provides them with this opportunity to gain experience and knowledge. Undertaking work alongside existing employees also impresses on them the working culture of the company, and signposts how to work in a professional environment. Interestingly, the knowledge gathering aspect of the internship is also a chance for the business to learn. Indeed, does an internship provide an opportunity for the company to self-reflect on its knowledge development skills through the untainted eyes of interns?

Simultaneously, benefits are also extended to the company hosting the internship. In the current ultra-competitive job market, interns are hardwired to be proactive, seek out a consistent stream of work, and dedicated to using their full effort and talent in all their tasks. Work that might be overstretching the schedules of permanent staff can be passed off to eager interns (subject to experience requirements). More nuanced is the positive impact on the brand recognition and outreach of the business, a particularly powerful benefit for smaller companies to attract skilled resources who otherwise might simply have trodden a more mainstream career path. Pertinent to this increased outreach is the higher degree of social media use (particularly LinkedIn and Twitter) by Gen Z interns. The generational factor is also key when it comes to interns introducing new ideas into the business, with many businesses recognising that millennial and Gen Z interns hold a wealth of technical acumen and ideas for strategic technology. Moreover, with only 50% of internships resulting in full-time job offers, a favourable experience for the other 50% who find employment elsewhere may lead to them becoming a future customer or at least an advocate, both scenarios that benefit the business.

However, could all this be a distraction? A waste of precious time and resources? Potentially yes, should there not be a clear and effective structure responsible for overseeing the intern. A framework that doesn’t deliver the necessary environment for an intern to prosper would indeed waste the time of both. Thus, to reap the benefits of an internship program, to guarantee ‘Growth for Both’, it is imperative to establish a robust and efficient framework within which both the intern and the business can grow.

Future-Proofing

As with life, there is constant turnover within the workplace, and indeed constant turnover of staff, whether it be through acquisition, loss, or retirement. Securing a source of talented individuals with the potential to become outstanding and reliable employees is critical for FS organisations. Utilising an internship program is an effective method by which to assure this future talent pipeline.

Of course, the process to benefit realisation begins with identifying and procuring potential talent for the business. Existing application processes have proven the effectiveness of scenario-based verbal, written, and numeracy challenges in syphoning applicants down to those with high degrees of talent and potential. Beyond the application stage, it is in fact the business that is then challenged with establishing an effective framework for the internship. The intern’s time with the company is an opportunity to exhibit a culture centred on inclusion, modern values, and development. Naturally interns are highly impressionable, with a recent survey finding that 80% of interns felt their professionalism and work ethic were significantly influenced by company culture. Therefore, being able to exhibit this kind of culture to potential employees has never been more critical, particularly than in a post-pandemic world where visions and values now guide career decisions just as much as salary. Assuming that a post-internship job will be their first professional employment, money will undoubtedly play a significant role in an intern’s career decisions. Yet the prospect of working for an organisation with an inclusive and welcoming culture will guide their hand just as much as salary. We should envisage the whole process as not only an opportunity for the intern to show off their talent and value to the business, but also for the business to show off their modern culture to the intern.

Clearly, for an organisation to reap these benefits, time and resources will need to be invested into the design, refinement, support, and operation of such a program. Yet again, we see questions raised over whether the potential benefits of an internship program outweigh the time and resource cost. But without a time and resource investment into producing an end-to-end process which can identify, nurture, and retain talent, businesses are jeopardising their chances of securing a future talent pipeline. Organisations should therefore have no qualms over the cost of producing an internship process, for the potential benefits of a successful internship program are too important to ignore.

Responsibility

Undoubtedly, internships provide a range of benefits to both the interns taking part in the programs and to the organisations who provide these valuable opportunities. It is natural to expect that provision of internships will always be significantly influenced by the perceived benefit of the program to the organisation providing it. But could this be different? Regardless of whether a business perceives an internship as beneficial or not, should FS companies have a responsibility to give back to their local community? Internships provide a precious opportunity for young adults, regardless of whether they have just finished school or newly graduated from university, to experience a professional working environment which can help guide their future career choices. Providing an internship program, no matter how many places are available, is an ideal way to give back to the local community, not only offering invaluable experience to young adults but also signalling a sense of care to the wider community. Ultimately, this is a conundrum that each organisation will address differently, for only they know whether they want to, or indeed can, give back to their community in this way.

Whilst internships are not a new concept, I hope that shining light on the benefits provided by these programs to both interns and businesses will spark new conversations amongst FS organisations still without any presence in the internship sphere. Whether small or large, businesses can all benefit from internships. There is no escaping the fact that time and resources will be expended when developing and operating an internship program and care will be required to limit the unnecessary use of both. But ultimately, in a highly competitive industry the picture is clear and businesses should ask themselves this: are we happy to let talented future workers fall into the hands of our competitors? If the answer is no, and it should be, then there should be no qualms held about the time and resource investment required to establish a value-making internship program.

Written by Max Penney, Altus Programme Delivery Intern. 

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