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Internships: How to get the experience you need

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After undertaking over fifty interviews to fill a position at my firm this past month, I have come to the sad conclusion that many, if not most, young people do not understand why they need to undertake internships/ attachments. Interning seems to be yet another perfunctory requirement on the journey to a full-time, well paying job, and one can almost hear the collective sighs and groans of interns across the country who cannot wait to get to the real work.

To the common question, “What did you do at XYZ internship?”, these young workers respond with a quick job description. Something to the tune, “The job entailed doing A,B,C”, after which there is silence and an expectation of the next question.

But is the question really answered? Absolutely not. Dear jobseeker, listing your job description in no way proves that you can actually do “A, B and C”, neither does it show that you actually excelled at doing “A, B and C”. And these are precisely the abilities employers are looking to gauge in that interview. Experience has much more to do with proven performance than a long list of internships undertaken and years served.

When I insist on understanding what was done at an internship, the applicant in question will normally bow his head and mumble, “I was not in a position to make things happen.” Therein lies the problem. Young jobseekers are captive to an unfortunate trio of misconceptions: that one should wait to be assigned tasks at the workplace; that all tasks are equal; and that the completion of a task constitutes results. The opposite is true.

Those who are focused on building their CVs know that they must seek out and position themselves for the kinds of tasks that make for tangible results. They also know that results are only of interest if they are quantifiable and actually impact an organization. A potential employer looks at your CV as follow: you did XYZ and so what? Can you make any claim of having impacted the organization you worked for in a significant manner or were you just a body in the room, shifting paper from point A to point B?

Before you enlist for your next internship, first do some research into the kinds of opportunities that exist for you to shine at that organization. This is a legitimate question to ask–as politely as possible–towards the end of an interview. Do not take an internship where you are expected to provide free labor and stay out of the way.

Next, within the first week of the internship, once you have learnt the rules and workings of the organization, establish what tasks, gaps, business problems offer the best possibility of producing tangible, measurable results. Then establish what kind of attitude, comportment and skills you will need to exhibit in order to be entrusted with such tasks.

Every task assigned to you in those early days of the internship should be about winning this trust. You will also need to continually and tactfully express interest in the big tasks–through small reminders to your supervisor during friendly conversation or explicit proposals detailing the kind of results you could produce. Also, to get the big tasks/ assignments, you may need to volunteer for and excel at tasks no one else wishes to undertake. This is how you stand out and this is how you gain the experience your next employer will most certainly demand before considering you for a job.

To paraphrase Dr. Robert Schuller’s “Tough Times Don’t Last But Tough People Do”: understand what needs to be done; establish the cost of making it happen; then pay the cost and get it done. Let no one despise your youth, most of all yourself.

Makena Ringera is the lead trainer at Jobsmentor, a job search and job skills training firm targeting recent graduates and young professionals. Contact her at [email protected]

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