Vince Vaughn movies notwithstanding, college internships are increasingly becoming a mandatory prerequisite for students who hope to find gainful employment after graduation.
No longer is it enough to have stellar transcripts or impressive extracurriculars. Employers want experience, early and often.
But getting an internship is tough work. The supply of students seeking summer jobs far exceeds available openings. As a result, firms can choose to be selective—and stingy. So long as they can make the case that student workers are “learning,” some employers make a habit of paying interns little or nothing.
The problem of low internship wages can loom even larger in the government and nonprofit world than in the private sector. Free labor is an easy way to get around tight budgets.
As a result, we hear a lot about how internships go wrong. But today, I want to talk about one organization that does it right: The Century Foundation. By looking at how TCF runs its internship program, others can learn how to better run theirs.
My Internship Roadmap
As a 28-year-old Master of Public Affairs candidate at Princeton, I’ve seen internships from many angles.
When I was an undergraduate at Penn, I had several fascinating internship experiences, working first for Senator Chuck Schumer, then for ESPN Radio. Both were as cool as they sound. Both fulfilled long-standing dreams. But neither paid. As student debt piled up, these internships didn’t make things any less stressful financially.
After graduating college, I worked for five years at the New York City Office of Management and Budget, helping to oversee the city’s social service and criminal justice agencies.
By the time I left, I was hiring and managing interns. They were smart, motivated, and did excellent work. Some were offered full employment. But while they were interns, they were unpaid.
Yet they, like I, never really complained, or really even thought to. As an intern, you feel lucky just to have a job, even an unpaid one.Internships are considered a rite of passage, something you do—working long hours without pay, in the hope it leads to bigger and better things.
But it need not be like this, as I learned from spending this past summer as an intern with TCF.
Changing the Game
TCF has, at this point, spent nearly a century generating long-form, evidenced-based research to inform policymaking, with a particular focus on inequality and economic opportunity for all.
As attractive as TCF sounded to me on paper, I’ll admit that returning to the intern world after time spent managing interns myself was a little weird. To be honest, the thought of being “an intern” bruised my ego.
Lucky for me, I had picked the right place, because the moment I arrived was the moment I stopped feeling like an intern. I was an employee.
How did this happen? As it turns out, creating an “all-out” intern experience need not be complicated—as long as you remember the five P’s.
At TCF, I felt like an equal from day one. Though TCF, like virtually all organizations, has a hierarchy, full-time staff go out of their way to make the temporary help feel like full-fledged members of the team. There is no pretension. There is no condescension. What there is, is respect.
Interns at TCF don’t make copies or fetch coffee. They do serious research, helping fellows and staff complete high-profile project, often publishing original content themselves.
Internships are supposed to be learning experiences, and TCF makes it a point to ensure interns come away with a few extra tools on their proverbial utility belts.
Each week, an experienced staffer gives a presentation about his or her area of expertise. During my summer program, we discussed social media strategy, graphic design, editing, data visualization, and writing for an online audience, among others.
The emphasis is on “quick wins”—simple strategies interns can use to dramatically improve their work products, both at TCF and in the future. Small changes can yield large dividends.
Just as important, TCF provides a platform for interns to practice what they’ve learned, encouraging regular blog posting on public policy issues, culminating in end-of-internship presentations to the entire staff.
When I said that TCF treats interns as equals, I was only partly telling the truth. Sometimes, interns are treated better than regular staff.
Throughout the summer, TCF provides weekly intern lunches. Not only do interns get to sample some of the best food downtown Manhattan has to offer (for free!), but each lunch is hosted by a full-time staffer who uses the time to discuss his or her career path, talk about their work, and answer questions.
Among the highlights of my summer were lunches with president Janice Nittoli, who has transformed the foundation in only a few years on the job, and VP Greg Anrig, whose tenure at TCF has spanned several decades and whose research portfolio is equally expansive. Even still, both may well have been topped by a hike over the Brooklyn Bridge led by Chief Administrative Officer, Phil Li, to get pizza at DUMBO’s famous Grimaldi’s.
Twice, the TCF interns got to return the favor, hosting “brown bag” policy forums for other interns throughout NYC. These lunches provided excellent opportunities to network and exchange ideas.
And the fun wasn’t confined to the workday. The interns got to accompany the full-time staff on after-work outings to Battery Park and the Staten Island Yankees, never once paying for anything.
Working for TCF was such a pleasure because people cared. A job at TCF is not something taken—or given—lightly. The fellows and staff care deeply about poverty, inequality, and social justice. They care about doing the research necessary to formulate prudent, compassionate domestic and foreign policy.
It is this passion that has led them to become stars in their fields. Fortunately for the interns, it is also this passion that compels them to inspire others to do the same.
That’s not to say all organizations must have the same goals as TCF—only that they commit themselves to their missions and strive for excellence. Caring is contagious.
To an unscrupulous intern administrator, the first four P’s would make a pretty strong case as to why TCF interns need not be paid. After all, they get a pretty good deal.
But pay is perhaps what seals the deal; there are few substitutes for putting money where one’s mouth is. TCF provides its interns with generous stipends—a wage sufficient to allow interns to take the jobs without adding summer living expenses to their student debt loads.
But the money does more than relieve financial pressure. It underscores the atmosphere of equality and teamwork, making tangible the organizational attitude and boosting morale. Pay also broadens the applicant pool and heightens incentives, resulting in non-trivial performance gains.
But most importantly, it is fair: interns are satisfactorily compensated for the output they produce, satisfying one of the basic tenets our labor laws were created to protect.
If all of this sounds a bit like an infomercial for TCF, it is. I believe in the organization and its mission. I had a great time working there. I strongly encourage prospective interns to get their applications in. But the bigger lesson is that TCF does internships right.
Of course, not everyone is right for TCF, and TCF is not right for everyone.
But what TCF’s internship program has achieved, others can replicate. It’s time we treated students as employees—whether the output is a report, a memo, a spreadsheet, or a touchdown.