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Q&A with Heather Huhman: Making the most out of internships

Heather Huhman is a career expert specializing in media relations, content marketing and social media. She is the president and founder of Come Recommended and was named a “top job tweeter you should be following” by CNN/CareerBuilder for the past two years. Her new book, “Lies, Damned Lies and Internships,” examines the condition of internships in today’s economy. I interviewed Huhman on how to create a successful internship program. An edited version of her answers follows.

In your new book, you wrote that “the system is broken and needs to be repaired.” What do you think is the first change that needs to be implemented for intern programs in the U.S.?

The first and perhaps most important change is to adopt a national definition of “internship.” Right now, there is not a unified understanding of what the word means. In the book, I quote Dave Ellis of YouTern in defining intern: “To gain business experience while contributing your already developed valuable skills; an empowered team member who learns through hard work and mentorship in a dynamic business environment.” You’ll notice two important aspects in this definition: education and mentorship. Without those components, it’s not truly an internship.

In your book, you point out that internships are not meant to be jobs. How should employers strike a balance between having interns fetch coffee and treating them like full-time employees?

First of all, interns should not be fetching coffee at all. They are not personal assistants and shouldn’t be treated as such. In an ideal internship, at least 51% of the experience should be spent learning and the remaining time should be spent applying what they learned. Remember, mentorship and education come first.

Why do you think full-time, unpaid internships should be illegal? Should working for college credit be considered a substitute for working for pay?

Full-time, unpaid internships should be illegal because they do not allow interns to substitute the loss of income with another job. There are people who argue that internships are only for the elite class, and full-time, unpaid internships certainly support that argument. And no, college credit should not be considered a substitute for pay. College credit actually requires money to be spent by interns to pay for those earned credits.

How should employers structure their intern programs to maximize the benefit for their company and for their interns?

Every organization is different, so there is no one-size-fits-all answer here. However, I do outline specific characteristics of a good internship in Chapter 3 — including making sure interns receive real assignments and projects, have an opportunity to be mentored and network with other professionals, walk away with references and recommendations, etc. — and how to create a good internship program in Chapter 4, starting with an analysis of exactly how both the company and the intern will benefit from the arrangement and how mentorship will be woven into the program.

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