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A learning experience over coffee

The "I Just Work Here" Internship Program — should such a thing ever exist — would be the gold standard of temporary employment.

First off, as an intern to America's most beloved workplace advice columnist, you'd be given the title "America's most beloved workplace advice intern."

Second, your primary duties would include:

•Helping me come up with excuses to go out and get a snack

•Going with me, because I hate to snack alone

•Helping me find ways to sneak more bathroom humor into my columns.

Of course my "bosses" tell me we don't have the "budget" to "hire me a snack partner, er, intern." But that doesn't stop me from pondering the subject.

And I've been pondering it more than usual after hearing about a recent intern matter. A reader was having a hectic day and asked an intern to go for a cup of coffee. The intern bristled and refused.

Was the reader out of line for asking? Is it ever acceptable to ask interns to engage in stereotypically intern-ish work, such as making copies or fetching sandwiches?

Let's first examine the nature of the internship.

Ross Perlin, author of "Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy," said the concept of interning goes back thousands of years to when young people worked as apprentices in the trades.

"But internships as we know them, in the past 30 or 40 years, have become something like a rite of passage, kind of a shared cultural experience that just about anybody who wants to break into the white-collar world has to go through," he said.

This has made internships fertile ground for exploitation.

Perlin's research found that internships have replaced entry-level jobs in many industries. Interns are rarely paid well, and the duration of these roles is on the rise. (It's worth noting that under federal wage and hour laws, a for-profit company can offer an unpaid internship only under certain circumstances that include the company receiving "no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern" and the internship being "similar to training which would be given in an educational environment.")

"Maybe 10 years ago, an internship would be like a summer or something, but now people are in an intern state for two years, or they might have to do multiple internships before gaining that full-time gig," Perlin said.

Amanda Kane, president of the New Mexico chapter of the Public Relations Society of America, has worked as an intern coordinator and is concerned about the way many internship programs are run.

"Most companies approach it as free labor for the summer, and that's really not how it should work," she said. "I think it's getting worse because of the economy. You have more people willing to work for free, and many will take advantage of that."

These programs, whether paid or unpaid, need to be about the interns and not about the company's bottom line.

"Taking on an intern is a huge responsibility," Kane said. "You're making a commitment to mentoring that person. A successful internship is one where the person walks away with experience in the field that is quantifiable, hopefully through work samples. You also hope they'll walk away understanding how things work in their industry."

Perlin said there's no "one size fits all" internship program; the people you bring in should get "hands-on, dedicated training and mentoring" and be given a clearly defined role.

The nice thing is, if you are giving the intern a sound, structured, productive experience, the fetching coffee question will likely take care of itself.

Consider this concept I've brought up repeatedly in dealing with workplace issues: Be a decent human being.

If you're treating your interns well and fairly, making them feel like a productive and necessary member of the team, it doesn't seem unreasonable to occasionally ask them to do something mundane, such as picking up a lunch order or making copies before a meeting. And if you really want to ensure that such requests aren't met with consternation or resistance, bring the intern some coffee once in a while. Show that nobody is above chipping in for the greater good.

That would be, in and of itself, a learning experience. A chance to see that jobs, for everyone, are a combination of challenging, exciting work and mundane tasks that have to get done.

Besides, "if you train your interns well, they're going to go out and do good work," Kane said. "Most industries are really so small. When you train someone well and they go out, they're basically an ambassador for your organization, and if they know what they're doing, people are going to ask where they came from."

So bosses, interns are there to learn — teach them and balance the petty tasks with engaging work. And interns, recognize that every job is a mix of fun stuff and dull stuff. As long as the fun slightly outweighs the dull, you're doing just fine.

Should the "I Just Work Here" Internship Program ever come to fruition, I'll explain it all to you over snacks.

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