The Intern-view: Top 10 insights from an intern

Sarah Gebretsadik is one of eight summer interns hired by CFIB in 2015 as part of the fifth annual CFIB/Scotiabank Internship in Public Policy and Entrepreneurship. Her role will involve research and writing a report on workers compensation systems in Canada.

Sarah is currently completing her MA in Public Policy and Economic Development at York University. She also holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto, specializing in International Development with a Minor in Economics. She spoke to MSU about the ins and outs of her internship.

What type of organizational attributes were you looking for when you sought an internship?

I was looking for an organization that would have meaningful work for me to do; not just mundane tasks or tedious tasks, but actually something that makes a difference and contributes in some way to the organization. Another attribute would be an organization that acknowledges that I’m there to learn and grow, so a place that would foster that and give me different challenging activities to do, that would push me, help me to not just stay in one particular area of the organization, but would help me learn different organizational aspects of the organization, as well. I’m here just as much to contribute what I have as I am to learn from the organization.

What appealed to you specifically about the CFIB/Scotiabank internship?

I appreciated that they seemed to take the internship role seriously. There was meaningful work to be done in that there was a report to write. Also, the credentials or the requirements they were asking for were a little bit higher, so I appreciated that, because if they are expecting higher credentials, it means better work that they were probably expecting us to do. I saw that the internship really related to the field that I was studying; there was a strong relationship between what I study and what I’m looking to do in the future, and specifically, what the CFIB internship had to offer. There was an alignment there.

What was the most challenging part of the process?

The technical aspect of the video component of the interview process was probably the most difficult part. It was difficult to get used to because it was a bit impersonal and you can’t really feed off of people’s conversations, or you aren’t sure if you’re going in the right direction with responses. It’s time limited, so there were a lot of constraints when it came to that, yet I understand why they had to use that tool, since there were a lot of people that applied.

What are you hoping to accomplish with this internship?

I’m hoping to gain a lot of practical job experience. The work that I’m doing here is really similar to what I’ve studied, but this is a place that I can actually apply the things I’ve studied to a work environment and actually see them in what I’m writing; the changes (outlined) in the report I can bring to the industry, or to small and medium-sized businesses.

I also want to learn professional development skills and presentation skills. It’s nice because as an intern, perhaps expectations aren’t as high as if I was hired as a (permanent) employee, so there’s a gap there provided for learning. I want to really use that space that’s provided. Also, I hope to learn from different people in the office.

Can you think of any questions asked of you during your interviews that really stood out?

Two questions stood out to me:

1) In your life, what would you see as your two greatest accomplishments? This provides an opportunity to get to know me as an individual and see what it is that I value; what it is that I think is an accomplishment. It gives you an opportunity to learn more about the individual that you’re about to hire, which I think is pretty interesting and a little bit above and beyond the normal type of questions that you always get asked in interviews, where people come already prepared with a response.

2) In what type of environment do you work best? As an independent worker? In a team environment? I think through this question you can see if a person is best suited for the job environment that you have. For example, some research-based positions are much more independent. If a person wants to be around people more (and) wants to be interactive, it might be a pretty depressing job to have to sit down by yourself. Or if you’re somebody who likes to work alone but the job requires you to interact with people, such as a sales and marketing position, it probably wouldn’t be fitting.

Imagine you’re a business owner: your business is growing and you’re going to test the waters by establishing your very first intern program. What type of qualities will you be looking for in an intern?

I would look for the intern to be somebody who is hard working, who would not see the internship as something inferior, or something less than employment, so that they would think ‘I don’t really need to work that hard.’ I would look for somebody that is actually hard working and who came to the job to give it all that they had, to do their best at this position. I’d also look for somebody who is willing to learn: willing to be molded and mentored, not somebody who comes in saying ‘Oh, I have this educational background and I know everything.’ Somebody who is flexible, willing to adapt and grow, and who doesn’t just want to stay in the position. These things all tie into confidence: an intern who believes in the work that they have to offer and who believes in the skills they have to offer doesn’t shy away from really delivering.

What is important for a business to know as they go about seeking to hire an intern?

You would need to know if an intern actually fits the need that you have: is it really an intern that you need? Internships are usually short-term and are usually for growth, learning, development, so is that the need of your organization? If so, then maybe you can go a little bit more specific and ask, ‘Am I looking for an intern that has a certain specific set of skills, or is it enough that an intern has just a university or certain type of background, and we can just work with that?’ It really depends on what an organization’s need is and understanding (a) do you need an intern and (b) what type of intern do you need? Does this intern need to have, for example, a certain amount of education or a certain type of work experience? These are all things that you can consider, and also, you could ask, ‘Do we have room to take on this intern later on? Are we looking for somebody we could have for a few months to see if this person is fitting for the organization? Do we want to take this person on?’

What does a business or organization need to do to create the right conditions for a successful internship?

Having some type of a structure is good; not just throwing the intern into the organization and saying ‘OK, just figure it out.’ Maybe have some training in the beginning, have some type of meetings with the interns, some type of information sessions, with the understanding that the intern may not have had this type of work experience before. Allowing for that learning curve in the beginning is really important, as well. And then placing the intern in the environment for training and development, providing mentorship to the intern, providing feedback throughout the internship process, having continuous, periodic meetings — it’s not just about the (functional) tasks for the intern, it’s also about the intern’s development. It’s not just about an employee getting work done, but also actually investing in the intern.

What does a successful internship look like, when all is said and done?

I would hope that I would have gained new skills, whether they are specific to that job, or also transferable skills. Sometimes there are internship positions where you could continue in that organization, and other times that’s not possible, so an internship would be great if I walked out not only with the skills specific to that job, but also with skills that I could take on to other jobs, as well. For example, presentation skills, being able to work in an office space, knowing how to deliver based on what my manager is looking for, being able to meet expectations, being able to communicate with (colleagues) in authority…all of these are important. Also, for me to be able to look back and say ‘I had different challenging experiences that came my way during my internship and I was able to overcome them and grow from them.’ I am also working on a report that will be published, and not only the report, but there’s a newsletter component and different communication aspects that go along with the report. It’s a very large, holistic project (data collection, analysis, report-writing, a media release).

Given that you were one of eight out of about 1,300 applicants who made the final cut, what do you think made you such a compelling candidate?

I think my educational background aligns with the work CFIB is doing. I’m doing research on public policy for small and medium-sized businesses, which is very much aligned with what CFIB does. I also have international work and educational experience, which I think is a little different than what others have to offer. I’ve worked abroad for about a year and I’ve worked with SMEs in different capacities internationally, so perhaps that was something different that I was able to bring that stood out from other candidates. I was also very clear that I was looking forward to being challenged and growing.

Thank you, Sarah, for offering such valuable insight. This will be a great learning tool for small business owners who are navigating the internship planning and hiring process.

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