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Why work-based learning is crucial to the future of business

Internship? Apprenticeship? Journeyman? Student practicum? Leadership development? No matter what you call it, work-based learning is the absolute best way for the adult brain to adopt new skills and for companies to develop talent. Why? Because humans need to practice to become great and organizations need people with actual practice to be competitive. Although it’s possible to learn basic techniques via passive learning, most of us don’t want basic colleagues or to work for basic organizations. We want to be superb and we expect our teams and companies to be superb as well.

Let’s start with a brief definition and then lay out some of the options for work-based learning. For the purposes of this summary, let’s use the common term internship.

What’s an internship? It’s basically like a laboratory but for work and career: hands-on, well-defined, and all about skill development by doing. Why do internships matter? Why should an organization dedicate time and money to someone who hasn’t yet achieved much, if any, expertise?

Even though we’ve come a long way since “fetch my drycleaning!” and “that’s not how I take my coffee,” there’s still a lot of confusion about what makes internships go well for everyone involved. Fortunately, good internships aren’t charity for unqualified people to pad their resumes or servitude for overqualified people to be underpaid. Here are the essential components:

  1. Get clear: Create a coherent project with gravitas for your organization.

An internship requires focusing on a specific set of skills or a specific type of project. One of the biggest pitfalls is to be vague about expectations. Even internships need Key Performance Indicators and Objectives & Key Results.

The specifics can vary wildly from field to field, and should be designed from actual company objectives. Of course, we’re not going to saddle the newbies with sink-or-swim deliverables, but we are going to put something real at stake. Otherwise we’re just play-acting feedback and infantilizing the intern, both of which are a huge waste of everyone’s time.

Fresh eyes really do see things differently. And while differently isn’t always better, it’s almost always valuable. Contingent on your ability to solicit and receive genuine feedback, hosting interns can be like having the ultimate focus-group on speed dial. Do you want to be aware of how the world is changing and how market opportunities are passing you by? Interns care enough about your industry and company to spend time with you but haven’t yet acclimated to your norms. Therein lies an ideal opportunity to solicit feedback and implement based on actual company objectives. If you see interns’ contributions as “practice”’ instead of the “real thing,” there isn’t enough gravitas to support great work. Learning (and quality work) requires access.

  1. Design for people: Create a clear format and communication methods.


There’s no such thing as an ideal internship length or number of mentor meetings. But the schedule should be based on the type of project and defined deliverables, not the other way around. If your internship program has a set timeline you cannot change, do your best to set up multiple potential outcomes to accommodate interns’ learning styles, which have little to do with talent and more to do with neuro-diversity and prior training.

Just as you need to record the project format, timeline, deliverables, and objectives, you also need to write down how you’re soliciting feedback and what you’re doing to incorporate that feedback into the larger company’s growth. By Bringing students and Employers Together, potential new hires receive market-ready skills and the companies who host them get direct access to shaping the future of their potential workforce. No matter how many skills are listed on a job description, if there’s no chance for prospective employees to practice those skills, they’re just a wish list.

  1. Take a hint from Agile: Let the team self-organize.

When it comes to not micromanaging, there’s more to it than just not breathing down someone’s neck. To make sure internships are fruitful for all, pair interns with early career professionals but also offer access to C-suite executives. We refrain from pairing interns with CEOs for ongoing support, not because of status, but because the rift in experience level isn’t relatable for the intern. Core mentors should be close-ish in experience level to maximize the impact of “near peer” coaching, which is more effective than top-down.

Once you’ve identified the mentor(s) and everyone on the team knows what they’re responsible for, let these young professionals have the autonomy they need to actually grow. There’s no magic number of interns to host at one time, frequency of meetings, or type of project that will guarantee success. But we can take our cues from adult learning, which emphasizes a sweet spot of support and autonomy.

  1. Compensate well: Interns and mentors are valuable.

In exchange for their time, insight, and labor, you should want to nurture, cheerlead, and lovingly push the next generation of team members. If their work isn’t great, you might not want to hire that person, but the company is at fault for the mediocre internship design. A good rule of thumb is to hover around $20/hour for interns, with some wiggle room when mixing an honorarium + class credit. If you don’t value your interns' work, please consider canceling your program.

For anyone who’s into growth mindset, we know that everything is a learning opportunity, which is why thinking of interns as being “below” an executive is a huge mistake. If your CEO thinks she’s an expert who’s finished learning, you should probably start looking for a new job right now. The main difference between interns and CEOs is that the new crowd “gets to” operate from a place of curiosity while there can be pressure for established professionals to “have all the answers.”

The fastest way to mess up is forcing uninterested junior employees to mentor interns. It’s actually harmful for interns (or anyone) to work with someone who’d rather not be bothered with them. If you can’t find solid mentors, you’d be better off not offering mentorships at all. The other side of the equation is that even eager mentors need to be rewarded and supported for the efforts. Again, this isn’t charity or what I call “backyard voluntourism.”

  1. Celebrate what already works: Adapt your winning company culture.

There’s no need to reinvent the wheel when bringing interns into the mix. It’s true that a crucial part of inclusion is adapting to new team members’ personhood, but since inclusion is part of successful business strategy anyways, you don’t need a separate plan for your internship program. If you’re already working on Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, ensure that company efforts are consciously supporting everyone, including interns, 1099 contractors, part-timers, and anyone else who might not be in attendance at your daily scrum or weekly all-hands. There’s no need to pretend interns are seasoned incumbents, but they’re people too and will benefit from your DEIB efforts.

Finally, we need to address a major equity issue that some companies aren’t aware they have. Statistically, women and people of color start by working their way up rather than get hired at leadership levels (despite similar qualifications as white males). This means that interns often have wildly different experiences of the same company than upper management. It also means that proven best practices in People and Culture programs dovetail beautifully with business strategy. If your board gives pushback, ask for their numbers. While personal beliefs and preferences can seem harmless, at the end of the day, even unintentional bias doesn’t help with competitiveness and relevance. And, of course, there’s also that little thing about being on the right side of history. There are plenty of places where debate is a crucial and healthy part of life. When it comes to making room for more human beings? Well, there’s no debate.

(Adapted from Sara’s write up for Silicon Valley Leadership Group)

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