Students proving to add value to the workplace

Alberta industry professionals say that students working with them as interns are more than just cheap labour. Interns can increase productivity, offer valuable insight and create constructive brand awareness — given the right environment.

 Balancing the work

The stereotype of interns doing menial tasks isn’t always a bad thing. Something that might seem basic or boring to your employees is all brand new to an intern. Shelley Billinghurst, manager of strategic staffing at Enmax, says that by taking on simple tasks, interns free up full-time employees to take on more challenging jobs while allowing the interns an opportunity to learn.

“If you’re going to ask an engineering student to run copies of maps, they need to understand why this is important to the work flow,” Billinghurst says. “So although it sounds mundane, they understand how it connects.”

But Billinghurst says that for Enmax, the key to a good intern relationship is making sure mundane tasks stay educational, which means involving the school. This way, students who are involved in internships or co-op programs have instructors who are able to mediate the internship process and ensure structured environments for students. Periodical check-ins ensure that everyone involved is getting what they need out of the relationship.

Fresh ideas

Though interns are usually students who haven’t completed their education, chances are they know a thing or two employers don’t. Nicole Landsiedel recently completed her third internship in a corporate communications environment. She says students are often eager to show off the newest things they’ve learned in school.Students still play a valuable role in the workplace, but you need to make it worth their while.

Photo illustration by Colin McHattie

“I hope I provided a fresh new perspective. Sometimes things can get dull and you have a new idea that can help,” she says.

Billinghurst says this is one of the great benefits of having interns around the office.

“Students will ask questions that normally may not get asked,” she says. “Have we thought that this would be a more efficient way? They question processes that we simply do because that’s the way it’s always been done. That’s a huge benefit. They ask you to explain why.”

Brand awareness

It’s also equally important for employers to attract the right interns, which Billinghurst says is all about great branding.

“Companies that participate in these programs understand that it’s truly strategic staffing in its greatest form. You invest in someone as they’re being educated and have a higher likelihood that they will come to you and choose you as an employer.”

Kelli Stevens, senior advisor for media relations and issues management at Suncor Energy Inc., also says her company believes in investing in their employees early on.

“If we train people well from the outset and then remain actively involved in their career development, we should end up with stronger teams, stronger leaders and a stronger company overall,” Stevens says.

And part of that investment involves a financial commitment.

Both Enmax and Suncor Energy Inc. compensate their interns, and that’s on top of the $3.35 million that Suncor Energy Inc. spent in 2012 on partnerships with institutions and organizations dedicated to workforce development.

As a student, Landsiedel says that the reputation of a company is a huge factor in an intern’s decision, adding that companies that don’t pay their interns are “big red flags.”

“I think sometimes people from older generations think that if you don’t do an unpaid internship you’re acting entitled, but for me if an internship is unpaid I question the employer’s [ethics],” she says.

Luckily, many employers have the same mindset. Billinghurst flatly called the idea of unpaid interns “immoral,” adding that “no one should work for free.”

So while the era of free interns seems to be on a downward trend, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t worth your investment.

rblackwell@cjournal.ca

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