What Is An Internship?

Heather Huhman won’t soon forget the abusive director at the nonprofit organization where she worked as a paid intern while in college.

“He’d come over and yell at you, slowly backing you against a wall, and then he’d pound his fists against the wall next to your head,” she says. Not only was she forced to deal with this jerk, but she also had to put up with abusive colleagues and a supervisor who never showed up. “It was a horrible experience,” she says.  

When she complained to the organization’s home office, rather than remedying the situation they simply offered her the remainder of the salary she would have earned for completing the internship in return for her leaving immediately.

Huhman, a veteran of five internships, writes about this and other experiences in  Lies, Damned Lies and Internships: The Truth About Getting from Classroom to Cubicle, a new e-book aimed at college students and HR leaders alike.

The book was inspired by what Huhman says is “lots of misinformation about internships being spread around the media,” particularly the recently published book Intern Nation by Ross Perlin. “He’s perpetuating myths about internships but he’s no expert—he’s only done one internship himself,” she says.

She was also spurred to write the book by the widespread misuse of interns that she says is taking place in corporate America every day.

“An internship needs to have two things: a mentorship and an educational component,” she says. “If those two things aren’t there, then it’s not an internship.”

Much of the attention on internships these days focuses on paid vs. unpaid positions, says Huhman. But the focus should really be on paid internships, she says, because too many organizations are relying on paid interns to do work that would ordinarily be done by entry-level employees.

“They’re seen as replacements for full-time employees, and that’s a bad thing,” she says. “An intern is there to learn from you, not provide cheap labor. In many cases, these companies are just looking to save a buck.”

Huhman encourages HR leaders to ensure supervisors understand what an internship is supposed to be about, and create mentorships throughout the organization, not just for interns. “It’s good for the employees and it’s good for interns, because they’ll be coming into an environment where mentorship is a commonly understood and practiced concept. The intern will come away with a much more valuable experience.”