The Internship Debate: Messing With a Good Thing Could Be a Bad Idea

Internships are a hot topic today. Lawmakers want to legislate them, and potential interns and soon-to-be graduates are terrified that means that internship opportunities will go away. Maybe they're right. If lawmakers decide that employers have to give full pay to teach somebody how to do a job, they're going to hire somebody who already knows how to do that job. Duh. At least, that's what I would do. And I've been running a successful internship program at my Caribbean destination wedding planning company for five years now.

Let me be clear up front -- my interns are paid. They receive free housing (a block from the beach on a Caribbean island), a small stipend, and we feed them constantly -- a benefit of doing an event-planning internship. They work as many hours a week as I do because they want to learn how to do my job. And if you can't keep up with the wedding planner 20 years older than you when you're shadowing her as an intern, you're probably not cut out for this career field.

Oh yes, you're expected to work your butt off when you intern for us. And we run the program 12 months a year because there are always weddings going on to learn from -- it's not uncommon for an intern to get off the airplane and be handed a uniform shirt to head directly to an event. It's the nature of the business. We do our very best to prepare them for that. Intern guides. Packing lists. Offers to talk with previous interns to get additional questions answered. You'd be amazed how few interns do not pay attention to the information we send them or take advantage of the resources offered, so their arrival is often a reality check.

As an intern supervisor, I take my job very, very seriously. I see it as my responsibility to teach these kids the very basic business skills they are not getting in school these days. Mostly because they're absolutely useless until we do. Straight up -- three things that most college grads who arrive as interns consistently cannot do:

- Write a check.
- Properly address an envelope.
- Use good cell phone etiquette in a business.

No, I'm not kidding. College students pay everything online -- but we all know the entire world doesn't work that way and sometimes you actually have to put pen to paper and write out the check. How have they missed this? My husband takes special pleasure in educating the interns on the finer points of check writing... including writing down the amount and remembering to get the receipt.

I blame their parents for the fact that college students cannot properly address an envelope - we have a whole generation of children here who have written all their birthday and Christmas thank you notes via email. Even today, a short, well-written thank you note on real paper after an interview will serve you so much better than a three line email. I know it sounds antiquated to the new generation, but it's the truth.

For me personally, the inability to address an envelope from a young lady who purports to want to be a wedding planner is absolutely preposterous. Seriously? How are you going to help advise a bride on her wedding invitations if you can't even address her contracts properly? So we teach them. And they learn. Some faster than others.

The cell phone etiquette thing has gotten to the point where we've made an actual rule that no intern may EVER have a cell phone while in a meeting in my office after girls were caught texting when they were supposed to be listening in on a client call. And you have to keep an eye on them during the day. Oh, we explain that we don't limit personal phone calls because our interns work long hours and we like to be flexible, but when you realize they're using that phone to text, Snapchat, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook personal stuff all day long, the rules get a little cloudy.

Phones should be silent around clients at all times. When you're working an event, there's nothing more important than that event. And if you're on the phone, it had better be because you're texting one of us or taking a picture of something we asked you to document. Video is okay too. But goofing off on a cell phone at an event is tantamount to saying "f*ck you" to the brides and grooms we're working for and I will not tolerate it.

It's doubly hard when you have interns working on social media as a marketing tool for your business so you can't really monitor how much time they're doing work and how much time they're goofing off unless you're hovering. Which defeats the purpose of having interns to help reduce your busywork load anyway. So you have to trust them.

We have to start from scratch with every intern that walks through our doors. Some have more office skills than others, but no ability to deal interpersonally with clients or wedding guests. Let's call them socially-underdeveloped. We spend a lot of time with them at events, having them shadow us and forcing interaction to teach them how to do it. Hands down -- sorority girls make the BEST wedding planners because they've all been through recruitment process so many times and they have no problem smiling and making inane conversation with complete strangers. Perfect for guest management.

Every intern has to learn the style of the business (fonts, logos, etc.) and how to write contracts. And we don't just edit their work, we sit with them and go through it together and show them their mistakes so they learn from them and do a better job on the next assignment. And then we hammer them with more and more complicated contracts as they improve. By the time they're finished, not only can they write a solid contract, they understand the differences between contracts and subcontracts and how to calculate the guest numbers and which policies belong where. Yeah... I'm proud of them.

They've also learned how to plan a wedding from beginning to end, how to prep tubs for events, how to make bouquets, how to fix a volleyball net in a pinch, and how to decorate a tent with chandeliers in a 40 mph crosswind. They know how to staff a wedding and supervise that staff at the actual event. And they leave here with a portfolio of pictures of the work they've done and events they helped plan. If they've got a talent for writing, they'll have been published on my blog a few times too.

Some interns are fabulous. Some are disasters. And every time we make a choice to invite one to move to our island, seven miles off the coast of Puerto Rico, we're taking a chance. One girl left after four days because she was afraid of geckos. Nope, not kidding. Others have had to be asked to leave because of behavioral issues.

A few have quit because they don't like following the rules -- for example, no drinking is permitted (regardless of your age) when wedding clients and guests are on the island. You never know when we have to do the hospital run in the middle of the night and the wedding planning team must always be sober. And yes, we have a "house mom" account executive that lives with them at Casa de Intern to make sure nothing goes wrong.

The ones who excelled have gone on to accomplish great things. The ones who were undergrads went back to school (we have a firm policy about not offering any jobs to undergrads because we do not encouraging dropping out) and the ones who have graduated have all found employment within a few months, if not immediately. One of my account executives started her career at Weddings in Vieques as an intern -- a goal I wish more interns had, but island life isn't for everyone. We don't have a Starbucks. Life is hard here.

A good internship program requires as much time and effort from the company offering it as it does from the interns working it. There should be a balance of fun provided too -- we make sure all of our interns get to experience the wonders of the island and the Caribbean through tours and other activities, not to mention copious beach time. But unlike internships in other places, my company feels even more responsibility for these young women because they've traveled to such a remote location to learn this job.

There's no public transportation on this island, and quite a few people don't speak English. We have no stoplights and we have thousands of wild horses roaming everywhere. There's a culture shock. But is it any worse than the same culture shock a sheltered intern from the Midwest experiences when he or she arrives in New York or Washington, DC, for a summer position? Really, what's scarier? No four-way stops, or the New York subway?

With that said, we know parents put a lot of trust in us (it helps that my husband is a retired SWAT team commander), and we communicate with them if necessary. But most importantly, we look out for the girls who come here to work for us as though they are our own daughters. Many end up becoming good friends after they leave, and I'd like to think it's because they learned a lot, had fun and made it back home in one piece. And once they've learned to plan a wedding here on Vieques Island, they can truly plan a wedding anywhere. This place is so back-asswards that it isn't even funny.

Perhaps rather than legislating internship requirements that won't make sense from industry to industry, students need to use common sense and do their research to make sure they're finding legitimate internships. I'm boggled by the number of intern candidates who haven't thoroughly researched my company when I interview them.

We get literally hundreds of applications and I take the time to interview a few my account exec recommends, and some of these girls are really, really clueless. Look, I don't expect you to remember where I grew up, but I strongly urge you to note where I went to college and the fact that I had my own television show on TLC. If you missed that, you didn't look very hard. And the interview is a big old waste of my time.

And dear God, who is telling these new graduates to play with graphic design and color on their resumes? If you aren't applying for a graphic design job, I want a regular resume. I do not want to have to hunt for your graduation date. The best one yet didn't have any contact information whatsoever for the applicant. Really? REALLY??? The pinks swirls were really neat though... as I watched them go through my shredder.

Here's the reality of the internship game -- it's like an old-fashioned "apprenticeship" where you are trying to learn how to do a job. Some internships are more intense than others. If you work on Capitol Hill, you're going to answer phones and run for coffee. If you work on a campaign, you're going to wear out shoe leather. If you working for a news organization, you're going to drown in research. And if you want to be a wedding planner, you're going to learn to deal with a job that is 24/7 when clients are on the island.

Most really good internships are unpaid. I know mine was. I started out interning for Campaigns & Elections Magazine as part of The Fund for American Studies Institute on Political Journalism at Georgetown University. That was total slave labor... and I appreciated every moment of it. Publisher Ron Faucheux taught me more than I could have imagined and gave me a job too. If it weren't for the opportunity afforded to me through that internship, I'm not sure I would be where I am today.

So while I can understand the concern about internships being an excuse to underpay recent grads, I think that's truly a misrepresentation, at least when it's a good internship program. I compensate my interns because they travel so far and live in a strange situation, but if I were back in the real world, it definitely wouldn't be the same kind of deal. An internship is an "apprenticeship" and if you have a good one, you'll learn more about your chosen career field than you ever did in college.