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How to make sure your interns don’t have a useless summer


Dear Annie: Help! The person in our department who was in charge of our four summer interns (among other things) just quit without any warning at all. So we’re all scrambling around trying to fill in for him, and I was chosen to deal with the interns, maybe because I’m the youngest employee here (I’m 29). They already started working on some projects when they got here about a week ago, and I’m inclined to let them keep going on those, but what else should I be doing? I read Fortune’s article about students’ taking on more and better internships this year than in the past, so I really want to measure up by giving them (and us) a productive and memorable summer. Do you or your readers have any suggestions? — All Ears

Dear A.E.: I put your question to Aaron Harvey, co-founding partner of Manhattan-based digital ad agency Ready Set Rocket, who first got into marketing by way of an internship himself (he used to be a musician). “With interns, as with any young, new employee, you’re really in the career-development business,” he says. “The only difference is, since they’ll only be around for a short time, you have to be a little more focused.”

This year, Ready Set Rocket, which counts JPMorgan Asset Management, Johnson & Johnson, Ann Taylor, and Univision among its clients, got more than 70 applications from would-be interns and accepted just five, who are “treated like full-time employees” and paid an hourly wage, Harvey says. He offers these tips on making the most of the summer:

Get to know each intern individually. Since you have just four, this should be easy. “There’s a difference between just telling someone what to do and really looking at their skill sets, to see where they’re strong and where they may need training to get better,” says Harvey. “It also helps if you know their interests.” This approach “takes some extra time,” he admits. “You have to slow down a little and be a mentor. But it’s worth it, because when you do it, people work so damn hard and come up with such great ideas.”

Craft a series of goals for each intern. “We want everyone to walk away with tangible, marketable skills,” Harvey says. On the theory that people learn best when they’re genuinely interested in the tasks they’re given, interns at Ready Set Rocket each have a different set of goals designed just for them. One intern is a skier, for instance, so Harvey assigned him to a hypothetical ski company losing market share among Millennials to snowboarding, and then coached him on winning it back.

Because so much of digital marketing strategy now is built on data analytics, Ready Set Rocket gives all its interns the chance to earn a certification in Google Analytics at the end of the summer by encouraging them to study for the exam while they’re working. “It gives interns a real edge, since most professionals applying for digital marketing jobs don’t have that certification,” says Harvey. Whatever the equivalent might be in your business, if there is one, consider offering your interns a shot at it.

Tie everything to a larger purpose. Like most other Millennials, college-age interns “want to know that everything they do, even if it seems menial or trivial, is connected to the larger goals of the firm, and to their own success,” notes Harvey. So regular employees at Ready Set Rocket are trained to “provide details about the end user, and why it matters to the brand and the agency” when assigning tasks. “If you give them that context, it’s very easy to motivate them,” he says.

Invite interns to participate in meetings. At Ready Set Rocket, interns can sit in on any meeting, and they’re asked to speak up if they have something to say. This has paid off for the agency in unexpected ways. Back in April, for instance, an intern suggested hosting a special event, as part of Internet Week in New York, for startups in the fashion industry. Not only was the event a hit with entrepreneurs, but it brought Ready Set Rocket a new client. Some companies miss out by underestimating what the kids can contribute, Harvey says. “You can get a lot of value from interns if you don’t treat them like interns.”

Create a sense of community. Getting people together for activities outside of work can build camaraderie that’s hard to achieve in any other way, Harvey believes. Toward that end, Ready Set Rocket gives staffers, including interns, paid days off to do volunteer work.

So far, the agency has delivered meals to the elderly with the nonprofit Gods Love We Deliver, volunteered at the New York Marathon, and worked at the Lower East Side Ecology Center to help clean up city streets and plant trees. Says Harvey, “The cool part is, we divide the office into small groups — typically people who don’t work together — and they decide what they want to do, based on what inspires them.”

If all this sounds like a lot of work, well, it is. But, besides providing a great summer for interns, the effort might well give your own career a boost, somewhere down the road. “I’ve seen people in their twenties who were junior employees or interns somewhere one day and running an agency the next, or so it seemed,” Harvey says. “This is a small industry. Anyone could be your boss someday.” Everybody, after all, has to start somewhere.

Talkback: If you’ve been a summer intern, or have managed some, what made the experience memorable for you? Leave a comment below.

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