Internships-JA2017

Project-Based Internships 
Bring Return on Investment

If you want your company values to include embracing responsibility, collaborative effort, caring, high standards, respect, and empowerment, 
you must not limit an intern to mundane and inconsequential tasks.

“I’m researching the benefits and drawbacks of two terminology extraction methods for a language services provider.” This is not what we might expect to hear a student say when we ask what they do at their internship. But this sort of meaningful project is exactly what experiential learning—the kind of learning that takes place in a practicum experience—should entail.

An internship shouldn’t be about getting coffee. It shouldn’t be paper shredding or scanning documents. It shouldn’t be odd jobs, menial tasks, or repetitive actions like passing out water bottles or collecting time sheets. And the worst-case scenario—which is unfortunately all too common—an internship shouldn’t be about doing almost nothing because the agency didn’t prepare in advance for what the internship would entail, who it would support and affect, and who would take the time to provide training and feedback.

Such activities generally don’t constitute experiential learning. Furthermore, assigning little to no work, menial work, or inconsequential work paints the picture that your organization doesn’t value purposeful tasks, planning activities, and everyone’s time in the same way. If you want your company values to include embracing responsibility, collaborative effort, caring, high standards, respect, and empowerment, you must not limit an intern to mundane and inconsequential tasks. You should also pay your interns, although some might not agree with this.

Here I’ll describe my company’s unique project-based approach to an internship program, explain how project-based internships add value for an organization, and list some of the challenges to overcome implementing such a program.

Recruit an Internship 
Director/Mentor

The key to leading a project-based internship program is the internship director/mentor. This is the individual who listens to the needs and strategic direction of various stakeholders to better identify potential projects within the organization.

At Avantpage, my role is continuous quality improvement. This role extends to various areas of the organization, including operations, vendor management, sales, and administration. I have a finger on the pulse of these sectors, which allows me to listen to the needs and desires of each area and determine potential projects.

Every organization is different and the ideal director/mentor may have a distinct job role in various companies, but the key point is to identify the person who communicates on a regular basis with all areas of the organization. One of the benefits of establishing an internship program is that the appointed director/mentor has the opportunity to learn about a variety of roles, responsibilities, and activities within the organization, which cultivates appreciation and empathy across departments. Such employee cross-training has been recognized as essential to a flexible workforce1 and an element of agile management.2 In short, the director/mentor must understand the value each department brings to the entire group and learn about concrete activities, strategies, and processes in each department to create a well-defined project and coherent set of activities for the internship.

Establish an Internship Cycle

Once you have a director/mentor in place, the second step for developing a project-based internship program is to establish the internship cycle. This cycle usually depends on the academic calendar of the local universities from which you recruit interns. In our case, the local university uses a 10-week quarter system, which means we begin our internship cycle about 10 weeks before the academic quarter begins. Our entire cycle lasts 20 weeks. Thus, we’re always planning for the next internship simultaneously while overseeing the current one.

There are five phases to our internship cycle:

  • Project development
  • Recruiting, interviewing, and scheduling
  • Onboarding
  • Training, daily mentorship, evaluation, and feedback
  • Transition

Project Development: In the project development phase, the director identifies a need or desire in a particular area of the organization and collaborates with individuals in that area to create an appropriate project for the intern. For example, for one internship project, I listened to the people involved with vendor management discuss the need to train translators and layout specialists on what elements make a piece more or less comprehensible and how to measure the reading level of a document. I collaborated with vendor management to determine the scope of the training materials to be researched and developed. I also had one person commit to serve as a subject area expert who would work with the intern on these materials.

I then created a syllabus for the internship with input from the area expert in vendor management. The syllabus included the contact information for human resources, the mentor, and the subject area expert. It also listed the objectives for the internship (that the intern could take to their university advisor), expectations, a project overview, a calendar, and timeline.

Recruiting, Interviewing, and Scheduling: I then turned to human resources for the recruiting, interviewing, and scheduling phase. We collaborated to create the recruiting announcement for a readability intern, which was posted at the internship centers of local universities. The human resources department also set up interviews so that the vendor manager and I could interview the three finalists.

Onboarding: Like the recruiting, interviewing, and scheduling phase, the onboarding phase relies heavily on the expertise and processes of the human resources department as the intern is brought on as an employee. There is evidence to suggest that greater proactivity and productivity are correlated to greater attention being placed on employee socialization.3 In other words, interns feel more accepted and valued when they’re accorded the same attention as other incoming employees.

Training, Daily Mentorship, Evaluation, and Feedback: The bulk of an internship involves constant planning, training, and assessment with feedback. For example, when we brought on an intern who cleaned up our sales leads database, we had already identified smaller units within the larger project, such as merging duplicate sales lead entries and annotating leads by industry and specialization. I organized initial training sessions with our marketing team for each of these subunits and designated area experts to be available in case the intern got stuck or had questions. For daily mentorship, I had a five-minute conversation with the intern at the end of each day, where I asked her to summarize what she had learned. Finally, I gave her consistent feedback during these conversations, as well as more formal input at the end of each subunit.

Transition: The final stage in the internship cycle is the transition stage, in which the intern prepares to leave the organization. Most importantly, this is when the employees who stand to benefit from the work accomplished prepare to make use of the information produced. For example, one of our interns was tasked with comparing manual glossary creation with automatic term extraction. The report she produced at the end of her internship wouldn’t have been of much value had there not been a plan in place for how to use it after her departure.

To facilitate this transition, the intern wrote a final reflection and a handover document. The final reflection benefits both the intern and the organization. In this case, the intern produced a summary of her activities that she could take to her university advisor. We were left with information such as the dates of the internship and a description of the project, along with the documents produced during the project. The handover document often contains links to files or screenshots demonstrating what was accomplished and where to find the fruits of the labor. Thus, when our glossary comparison intern left, we knew exactly where to find her report and could immediately make value-adding decisions on whether manual or automatic term extraction made sense for various localization projects.

In each of the examples above—the readability internship, the sales leads internship, and the glossary internship—there is a common set of criteria: a well-defined, short-term, value-adding, mutually beneficial set of coherent activities centering around a single topic, theme, or goal, with training, evaluation, and feedback built in. These interns provided a product, report, knowledge, or improvement that our organization could use. As a result, the intern had a clear role within the organization by completing an entire project. This is why we call this style of internship either a role-based or a project-based internship.

Challenges

I’ve focused on the positives in project-based internships, but I also want to point out challenges with this program.

Project Design: One of the biggest challenges is the brainstorming and project design that takes place before an intern is interviewed. The project development that emerges from within the organization that doesn’t originate from top management is crucial to bottom-up cultural change. This is key if your organization is aligned with a philosophy of bottom-up change.

For us, the benefit of overcoming this challenge is that many processes at our organization have been defined and modified as a result of our internship program. These include training processes in readability, glossary building, and in-bound marketing strategies for attracting ideal freelancers to join our team.

Cost: Another challenge is cost. The cost of paying an intern is relatively low compared to the cost in terms of the time required for preparation, training, mentoring, and evaluating. This is why creating a value-adding project is necessary for a return on investment. If an intern produces something the company doesn’t use, or if the intern fills a position that’s better suited for a long-term part-time employee, the company will not experience a return on investment for the preparation, training, and mentorship required for success.

Stakeholder Commitment: Finally, one of the biggest challenges in this system is getting the stakeholders involved to commit. That means identifying the person who will be the director/mentor and having the networking competence to also gain a commitment from the subject area experts who stand to benefit from the project. Having these experts on hand is important to help develop, train, and evaluate the work of the intern. Modeling this kind of teamwork to interns is a great way to brand your organization as a learning organization.4

Internships Create a Rewarding Company Culture

Language services providers rely more heavily each year on a flexible workforce that demands a rewarding company culture. Engaging employees in committing to support an internship program cultivates pride in their work and provides an opportunity to reflect on their role within the organization (“What is it that I do here?” “What’s the big picture?”). In addition, the cross-training that occurs as a result creates an agile workforce. Finally, the partnerships that language services providers develop with universities are equally important ways to invest in the community and connect to a pipeline of future employees who may arrive already having contributed meaningfully to the industry during a project-based internship.

Notes
  1. 
Nembhard, David A., and Ruwen Qin. “Valuing Workforce Cross-Training Flexibility,” in Workforce Cross Training. Edited by David A. Nembhard (CRC Press, 2007), http://bit.ly/Nembhard_Ruwen.
  2. 
Birkinshaw, Julian. “How to Stay Agile,” Management Today (October 9, 2013), http://bit.ly/Birkinshaw.
  3. 
Tan, Kenny W.T., Al K.C. Au, Helena D. Cooper-Thomas, and Sherry S.Y. Aw. “The Effect of Learning Goal Orientation and Communal Goal Strivings on Newcomer Proactive Behaviors and Learning,” Journal of Occupational & Organizational Psychology, Volume 89, Issue 2 (June 2016), 420–445, http://bit.ly/goal-orientation.
  4. 
Boydell, Tom, John Burgogyne, and Mike Pedler. The Learning Company: A Strategy for Sustainable Development, Second Edition (London; McGraw-Hill, 1998), http://bit.ly/Learning-Company.

Serena Williams is the quality manager at Avantpage, Inc., a localization and translation company with offices in Davis, California, Mexico City, and Warsaw, Poland. She is also a research associate in the Department of Linguistics at the University of California, Davis, where she received her PhD. She has master’s degrees in applied linguistics and Spanish literature, as well as an MBA with an emphasis in organizational and behavioral psychology. After 16 years in academia, she brought her teaching experience to Avantpage, where she created an internship program. Since 2015, Avantpage has hosted nine interns for nine different value-adding projects. Contact: serena@avantpage.com.

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