Anna Swenson
October 08, 2013 8:00 am

For today’s young professionals, internships are the new entry level job. Being the under-paid (or unpaid) office newbie can be discouraging, especially as a student or recent graduate with a lot of ideas and the determination of a Jack Russell Terrier to get your career started in the right direction.

But the intern is scrappy. She perseveres. She believes that one day, a real paycheck will be hers. This intern has more than a few skills the rest of the office would do well to remember:

1. No job is too small

When you’re an intern, making coffee and making copies is just the top of the long list of jobs you’re probably going to do that don’t build any skill at all. You could be shredding documents, doing data entry or even cleaning – all for almost no money. And no one feels bad about making you do it, because you’re just an intern.

Older professionals would probably pass along a menial task to someone below them. What they can learn from the intern, filing forms from 1998 in a dusty back room somewhere, is that any job can be done well and with meaning. The intern isn’t just making coffee, she’s powering the capable team that she plans to be a leader in some day. She isn’t just doing inventory on binder clips in the supply closet, she’s teaching herself how to create a cost-effective yet organized work environment.

2. Careers aren’t something you deserve

Interns today are often unpaid, work long hours, often doing work that doesn’t build their portfolio or help them gain skills to help them get a job in the future. So why do they do it? Why are so many capable young people working for minimum wage after or during college, for the shaky offer of a maybe-job at the end of it?

Here’s what interns know and senior managers (or our parents) might have forgotten: The beginning of the story is tough, and sometimes ugly. If an intern secures a paid position at the company, that’s not something that’s a given or assumed – that’s something earned, by the grit of late nights and canned soup. Careers aren’t something that just happens to you anymore. For an intern, careers are something you earn.

3. Have the long con in mind

Unless you’re interning for Danny Ocean, it’s probably not a con your internship is working toward. But it’s something, and something big. Whether you’re looking to lead a big company so you can help your little sister with college tuition, develop a new teaching method that helps kids learn to read, or edit a great magazine that brings compelling causes to more readers, an intern has something in mind. She wouldn’t do her hair in the morning to go fold branded t-shirts alone in a warehouse if she didn’t know something great was in her future. The intern has a little picture, in her mind or in her cubicle, of why she’s workings so hard for so little and where it’s going to take her. Even if you haven’t articulated exactly what that is yet, every intern is putting in the work to get to something bigger.

When managers are making their entire teams miserable over teensy little problems, they might remember the perspective of an intern. What’s the long con? What are you working toward in the longer term, and what’s worth getting upset about as you get there?

4. You always have something to learn

As professionals become more secure in their daily routines, they stop diversifying their skill set. But for an intern, that’s not an option. An intern doesn’t say, “Sorry, I don’t know how to work the scanner,” the intern reads the manual (why is it in Swedish?), searches every cranny of the web (how did that picture come up?), and scans the wrong side of the document six times until she figures it out. In the olden days of shoulder-pad blazers jobs might have had set training programs, but often the young professional of today has to teach herself. This is a skill that is going to serve her well when she’s managing a project team of 20 people and they come to her with a problem no one else can solve.

On the opposite side, interns are often underestimated. The intern will learn to sit graciously through a six-part training on how to use LinkedIn even though she is already a pro at it, and won’t even send one nasty Tweet about how boring it is. Why? Because she knows she always something to learn, has the long con in mind and believes you don’t advance in your career by whining about it. You advance in your career by earning it.

So reheat your canned soup in the break-room microwave with pride, interns: You have a lot to teach the rest of the office. Even if you still haven’t quite figured out that scanner.

Featured image via ShutterStock

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