Career Advice

What You Could Learn From Interns

With summer interns heading back to college soon, let’s look at what lessons we’ve learned from them.

That’s right: Interns could teach us a lot in our professional lives. They may share trends, tricks or tools that may not go mainstream for months. They could increase our productivity and ability to juggle a myriad of people and projects.

“They bring fresh perspective,” said Laurie Brady, who runs the 2,000-person internship program for accounting giant Ernst & Young. “They ask intelligent questions that come from left field.”

If you haven’t already connected, here are five areas where you could be tutored by an intern, whether or not you approve of their tattoo or way of talking:

  1. SPEED. My productivity and ability to juggle a myriad of assignments increased markedly when I sat next to interns at newspaper jobs. They know how to text, write a report and order lunch simultaneously. So pick up their fast moves.
  2. ENTHUSIASM. Interns are prized for their energy and enthusiasm. Full-time professionals feel it and “it’s contagious,” said Brady.
  3. NEW TOOLS OR SITES.  Most 17 to 23-year-olds have used computers and the Internet since infancy. They can clue you in on mobile apps, great websites and amazing organizations, from Couch surfing to free online classes. Brady said interns introduced her to Pandora for great music. Other interns could show you around Foursquare or Twitter if you ask for a private lesson or two on a slow August day.
  4. CURRENT TRENDS. Choose your intern carefully on this one. To figure out the latest fashions, an intern from MIT may not make it. She’s more likely to introduce you to tech start-ups or artificial intelligence topics. For pop culture, someone from San Francisco, Calif. may be savvier than someone from Seymour, Ind.
  5. HUNGER FOR GROWTH. Watch how they soak up information and seek opportunities or extra assignments. At Ernst & Young, interns organize a summer community service project in each office, tapping their passion for service. “We have to keep them challenged,” said Brady, who works from Ernst & Young’s Detroit area office. This trait may motivate us out of our complacency or summer stupor.

Looking for a way to start your intern lessons? Ask to have one assigned to your team for a week or two. Or praise the work of the intern who sits down the aisle from you, then start a conversation.

Another approach:  Find out what’s important to the intern and where they’re headed. You may be able to arrange a dual-mentorship. You give pointers on professionalism or managing boss’ demands and they’ll help move your needle on technology, speed or something else.

If you are looking to step into management, consider serving as an intern’s official mentor — and learn a lot about giving professional feedback, when it’s not comfortable and positive, Brady says. Sometimes the staffer must tell the intern to spend less time online or to show up on time. And sometimes the intern will nudge the staffer to be more open to new ideas or new techniques for completing projects.

If you didn’t connect with summer interns, you may get a second chance: The fall interns arrive within weeks. Try to get one of them housed in the cubicle near yours. Or ask if a summer star could come back during school breaks to help you out.