museums&MORE Summer 2012
The Perks and Challenges of Interns

Most museum stores, gift shops and retailers in general will eventually face the question: Do we need an intern?

That question typically leads them to their next, which is whether they even want an intern. Hiring, managing and ultimately teaching an intern is something that takes dedication in time, energy and often dollars. Of course, there are ways around paying interns that are ethical and in accordance to your state laws, but for the most part, dollars will be spent as a direct result of having an intern.

When deciding if an intern is right for your store, there are a few things to consider. The first is why you believe you even need — or want — one. Some possibilities include:

There are responsibilities that are currently not being accomplished that would help your store.

There are tasks that need a specialized, trained person to attend to, such as graphics or Web design.

There are opportunities to be shared with interns who could gain from your store experience.

In addition to these points, there will likely be many others on your list. One point to avoid listing, however, is that you simply need someone to be on site during open store hours. This could be perceived as a perk; however, it is typically not a winning solution. The main reason for this is that interns need direction and leadership, so using interns as store employees without any supervision is not a recipe for success.

Maximizing an Intern’s Value

If the decision to have an intern has been made, your next step is to understand your management of the intern. Unlike a traditional employee or volunteer, an intern will have a college supervisor that will need updates from you in regards to his or her performance. This should always be on your mind since you are doing more than just managing an intern, but also evaluating one.

The direction and leadership you provide your intern will affect your store as well as their long-term understanding of business at large. This is a significant responsibility to accept if you truly embrace the challenge. Note that the challenge here is your own, and not that of the intern. Both of you will need to work hard to make the intern experience significant.

At the beginning of an internship, it’s a good idea to set goals that you want your intern to accomplish. Additionally, it’s important for your intern to identify goals he or she wants to tackle, as well. On top of these goals, creating a target list of tasks that need to routinely be completed as well as tasks that have extended deadlines should be prepared. Keeping this list visible is a great reminder for the intern to stay on track, and it also provides a great reminder to the supervisor, as well. The learning component of an internship should never be ignored, and it’s your job to ensure your intern is gaining knowledge, understanding and growth through their role.

As you begin to know your intern, you should attempt to identify their strengths and weaknesses through their professional performance. Not only will this help you manage and educate them, but it also allows you to give them specialized assignments for your store.

An example may be if your intern proves herself/himself to be strong at social media, then you could provide a task for them to set up a Pinterest account and create some store boards for you. If their strength was in visual displays, you could challenge your intern to do an upcoming focal window display. The opportunities are endless as to how you can lean on an intern’s strengths, so really the challenge is up to you to define how you can do this.

Accept Everything Isn’t Perfect

Leaning on an intern’s strengths is definitely a perk of having an intern. But true to life, with pros typically comes cons, and in the case of interns, this is nearly always the case. The reality is, you will see weaknesses just as often — if not more — in many interns. Maybe your intern is consistently five minutes late for their scheduled work time or they pull out his or her phone too often. It’s likely your intern will not work as fast on tasks as you would like, slowing other projects down. Then again, some interns work too fast and overlook the value in doing a project well.

As an intern’s supervisor, it’s your job to tell them where their weaknesses are, but do so in a supportive way. Remember, your ultimate goal is to deliver an educational environment for your intern to work for your store.

Beyond a poor performance is a new challenge that store managers are seeing —generational differences. Whether you are 30-something, 40-something or even 70-something, it’s very likely you will have to manage an intern from an entirely different generation.

It seems obvious that this would be the case — and you’re right — but the catch is that today’s early 20-something generation is unlike any other that has entered the workforce. Many of them have been texting since grade school and never handwrite anything. As a manager, it’s your job to understand their work capabilities while also enforcing expectations. Generational differences often get in the way of this. Ultimately, managing an intern will take extra work from you. If you aren’t up for this challenge, then an intern shouldn’t be considered for your store.

Making Your Decision

Some very simple questions will help you decide if an intern will be valuable for your store.

Will an intern enhance the overall store experience for customers?

Does the store management have time to properly support the intern in both management and educational capacities?

Can the store benefit from having an intern share their expertise?

Of course a variety of other questions should be on your own unique list, but these can quickly direct you to your ultimate decision. If you still aren’t convinced on what to do, consider a student shadow for a day or week. As a shadow,” students can still learn from your environment without the commitment of a semester. While it’s not beneficial to your store as much as it is to the student, it can provide you an example of how students need you to learn from. One day can teach them — and you — a lot.

Nicole Leinbach Reyhle is an experienced retail and wholesale consultant, speaker and writer. She writes a weekly retail column with Crain’s Business and her professional retail blog, Retail Minded. Reyhle resides in Chicago with her family and is dedicated to supporting local, independent businesses.

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