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On-the-job learning for interns

Updated: April 27, 2012 - 4:22 pm

Posted: April 27, 2012

By Susan Smigielski Acker

Correspondent

Summer is a time for fun in the sun. It is also a time for students to learn more about a future career as an intern.

Inside Business talked with four organizations that take pride in their internship programs. They range from the scientific to the liberal arts industries. The overall message is: Have a plan for the interns. Do not consider them free labor just to make copies and get coffee.

The Meridian Group

Terry Kelley, vice president of The Meridian Group, an advertising and marketing agency in Virginia Beach, said the organization has been working with interns for seven years.

"When we got into it we decided what we really wanted was to immerse them, 100 percent, in the business," he said.

"Once we got the right plan, it was easy to implement."

Student interns handle much of what a public relations counselor would do under guidance.

"We have them write a basic press release," Kelley said. "Before it goes out, someone edits it. They point out the mistakes and give ideas on how it could be better."

Kelley said corrections are made not to scold but to teach.

Students sit in on meetings with clients. "Usually they don't say anything in those meetings, but they are listening and learning how we handle them," he said.

The administration side is included. "For example, we have our interns do insertion orders for advertising," Kelley said. "That way they completely understand all sides of the business."

The firm usually has about four interns. Kelley said they come from colleges all over Virginia. Most students hear about the program through word of mouth.

The company interviews about 10 students around the middle of March when colleges are on spring break.

"The first interview will tell you the most," he said.

When interviewing, the company looks for confidence.

"Many times students need to make phone calls. We want those who will be fearless when picking up the phone," he said.

They consider students who ask good questions during the interview and fit in with the agency's culture.

Kelley said so far, all their interns have been a good experience. They have hired about four following college graduation.

"And there have been a few we wanted to hire, but they wanted to work in other cities such as New York," he said.

"Overall, the thing to keep in mind is that you are teaching them the business so they can decide if they want to make this a career choice," Kelley said. "They are just not free labor."

NASA Langley Research Center

It is fitting that the grandfather of internships is also the grandfather of NASA. Langley Research Center's internship program is in its 26th year. Approximately 200 students descend on the Hampton campus each summer to study everything from science to public relations.

Thomas Pinelli, university affairs officer, said it helps to be organized. This begins prior to the interns' arrival.

"They know the rules of engagement on the first day including their housing and travel, and they meet their mentor," he said. "It is not too much different from the freshman orientation done at colleges.

"We tell them they need to abide by government worker standards such as not surfing the Internet for inappropriate material. Once they know the rules, they sign a paper saying they will adhere to them," Pinelli said.

Before their arrival, students have several conversations with their mentors to discuss the project they'll be working on.

"Usually when they arrive they've had a couple of conversations with their mentors," he said. "They have a lot to accomplish in the short time they are there. Those 10 weeks go by fast."

Following the internship, students and mentors complete a survey.

"We ask them about their experience and how it worked for them," he said. "Many tell us they had an idea of a concept from a book or from what they were taught in class, but the fact they actually got to do it really taught them something.

"Sometimes what they learn is this is not the proper career choice for them. Occasionally we get a few who decide they don't like it. That's OK, better they learn it now. But for most, this is a confirmation that this is what they want to do."

Jefferson Lab

At Jefferson Lab, internships begin with the student's interest.

"For it to be a successful internship we need to make sure what they are doing fits their interest," said Lisa Surles-Law, science education administrator at the Newport News facility.

While their interest is nurtured, Surles-Law said students need to hone the good work habits expected at most companies.

"We understand for many students this is their first job," she said. "They need to keep the line of communication open. For example if they want to have a day off, they need to ask for it in advance. Make sure they understand they cannot just be absent without clearing it first.

This is part of the foundation of what an internship can accomplish."

Studio One Total Production Co.

The internship program at Studio Center Total Production in Virginia Beach not only teaches students the industry but learns from them as well.

"Many times they are more innovative because they are learning new ideas that we have not thought of," said CEO William Prettyman.

Studio One has internships year- round for high school, undergraduate and graduate students, he said.

Prettyman said they look for students who have charisma. He said reliability is important as well.

The internships here offer the full range of duties.

"We have them do a little bit of everything, from working on a complicated video to the mundane like stuffing candy in a mug to give to a client," he said. "We want to be realistic about it because it can't all be exciting."

It's important to recognize an intern who goes the extra mile to help, Prettyman said.

"We had one intern who helped us move. After helping us for four hours, she later reorganized and labeled our whole supply closet. We really appreciated it."

In addition to their main work - video production, the company offers administration internships.

"We have a student doing an accounting internship," Prettyman said. "We also have them in web design and marketing. Overall since we have been doing it for seven years, it has been very rewarding."

Mentors are oriented as well.

"We do a training program so that we have successful mentors," he said. "They understand the dos and don'ts. For example, they are not the student's supervisor. If someone agrees to be a mentor, they understand they are responsible for direction of what the student learns, not to pick up their dry cleaning and make coffee."

New mentors are not sent out on their own. Instead they are partnered with an experienced mentor.

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