Succeeding at the foot of the ladder – tips for interns and their employers

Internships are so big, Hollywood is getting in on the act
Internships are so big, Hollywood is getting in on the act

One morning, when I was interning at an Edinburgh ad agency, a client in Dundee called to say that rather than needing ‘that dvd’ next week, they needed it ‘right bloody now’.

The team fussed and moaned about how they would get it there in time. Then, being creative types, they realised they had an 18 year old youth in their company. And there’s not a lot faster than a West of Scotland teenager, other than perhaps a West of Scotland teenager tasked with an urgent delivery and loaned an account director’s drop top Golf GTI.

So roof down, away I went with my cargo. Arrived promptly and well turned out. Client was happy and impressed and called the bosses back at base to say as much.

The point of placements

There are two points to this anecdote. One is cometh the hour, cometh the intern – sometimes the most junior members of staff save the day. The second is that internships can involve grind, boredom and bewilderment but they also introduce you to what it is like to be in a workplace, in a role and have professional responsibilities.

At the end of an internship you want to come out more rounded, a bit more savvy and have a clear set of stories to tell an employer at interview. If you get to drive a cool car, that’s a bonus.

This much I know

I found the internships, placements and work experience I did on my way to my first proper job invaluable. Ten years after starting my first salaried position, I still call on much of what I learned in those various businesses I spent weeks and months in as a gauky, just-so-super-duper keen kid.

It was a recent BBC article that got me reflecting on all this. It was about how shady and difficult getting a good internship can be. It could also have been read as advising that the only internships that count are those at a big commercial outfit.

So having done many internships myself and having hired interns, I thought I might jot down some what I’ve learned addressed to those hunting for internships and maybe also as an appeal to those with internships to offer.

Don’t be conventional

I know why you’d try for an internship at a big household name but so does everyone else. A name only takes you so far, demonstrable experience is more important.

Mix it up and try the clients or suppliers of the ‘big name’ instead. My one regret when I was trying to get into the ad world was just to target agencies, which resulted in a conventional understanding and experience same as that every other graduate had when they arrived at the ‘big interview’.

There is a job description

What has become clear to me as someone who had been an intern and who has hired interns is that it is very easy just to dream up work day-to-day and set tasks arbitrarily. Problem being that the intern comes away not really achieving much and finding themselves telling a prospective employer that they did a bit of this and a bit of that.

The Hansard Society was good at giving interns a defined set of tasks to work on as part of a stable project team. So if you are setting up an internship (whether you are the employer or the employee) don’t be shy about insisting on a job description.

Handle the money

Probably the best thing anyone did for me as an intern was introduce me to the financial side of their business.

My uncle had a marketing agency and I pestered him to take me on. First thing he made me do (and everyday for an entire fortnight afterwards) was the agency books. I hate maths. But sitting there with the receipts and the invoices I learned more about what it takes to run a business than any other placement.

So get some time, if not all your time, in the financial department poring over what is going out and what is coming in.

Use campus connections

Some unis are better than others at encouraging students onto placements. Some make it part of the course, some keep a register of opportunities. Alumni networks are also a good bet.

Feeling that my third year was pretty flat, I spotted a 6 month placement with the Scottish Film and Television Archive, which I applied for and got. It turned my year and the rest of my time at uni around; it was interesting and my biographies of early documentary film pioneers got my name on the Archives website and printed catalogues that I could take along on job hunts.

A mate of mine went one better. He went on a uni-organised engineering placement in his first year that resulted in summer work every year after and a job the very day he stepped off his course.

Retrace your steps

Go back to the same places to do internships so that you build up relationships and have time to reflect, adjust and then right what you would like to do differently.

Internships are the closest thing to training ground exercises. I went to WCRS twice over consecutive summers. I saw how they developed and they saw me mature. A job almost materialised but in the end not quite.

Go in with high expectations

Two aspects to this. Firstly, treat it like this is your job from here on in just like a payroll employee. Secondly, make it known from the off that you want a job as well as to learn the ropes.

I badly wanted to join the social network after an internship but with no positions to offer they did find me a gig with the Giving Campaign delivering a website for schools. That was my first career job and it got me to where I am today.

Have a go

Approaching a internship can be intimidating. Do some or all of these things and your internship will be worth it. You’ll come out with examples of work, speaking the language of the workplace and with perspectives on what sort of employee you really are when it matters.

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