College Is Not Job Training: Why Interns and Recent Grads Need Extra Attention


A good chunk of the first twenty-two years of the average college grad’s life is spent in learning environments. The shift to the working world involves an adjustment of expectations in terms of how a person will contribute and get rewarded for that contribution, as well as a shift in communication style, dress, and time management. Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of people operations at Google, told the New York Times in a recent interview, “…I think academic environments are artificial environments. People who succeed there are sort of finely trained, they’re conditioned to succeed in that environment.” Google’s research shows no correlation between academic performance and performance after two or three years on the job.

The best managers of interns and recent grads know that not only are they receiving much-needed help with their own projects, they are training their charges in the ways of the working world. To provide on-the-job training that will result in a new generation of competent workers, consider the following:

Show Them the Big Picture

The academic environment involves a lot of learning for the sake of learning. Success is clearly defined by grades. In a business environment, it’s ultimately about the company’s bottom line, an individual’s performance is usually not as quantifiable as a numerical or letter grade. The new worker needs to know how their work contributes to the big picture, even if it’s as simple as answering the phone politely “so that our customers don’t think we’re rude and and end up going to a competitor.”

Interns also may need to learn the big picture on simple things like why it’s bad to fall asleep in a meeting or stay home sick without calling in. With an intern you might need to add explanations to your requests: “Please call me when you’re sick. That way I know you’re planning to come back and I can get someone to help with your work while you’re away.”

Encourage Questions

Interns and junior employees often don’t know when to speak up. They might be used to lecture classes in which the professor seemed inaccessible, and accustomed to accepting assignments without question. Work is often less structured, and when an assignment is unclear, interns may need to learn to decide when to ask questions, when to figure it out on their own, or if they can propose something different. Because they have been learning for the sake of learning, they may end up going on a tangent that’s not ultimately useful for completing the task at hand.

Managers need to pay special attention to figure out if interns have questions they’re intimidated to ask or that it hasn’t occurred to them to ask. Warning signs of the confused intern include: not hearing back about an assignment while the intern is working on it (usually there’s some kind of feedback or status update volunteered); no progress made from an intern who is usually responsive; when prompted for questions, the questions are disjointed from the project at hand (intern might not understand project enough to ask meaningful questions and doesn’t want to admit they don’t know where to start).

Provide Frequent Feedback

Intern FeedbackStudents get a grade at the end of every semester, and have assignments every week that build toward the final grade. Working toward an end-of-internship evaluation or yearly performance review is going to leave a new worker unsure of where they stand. By providing frequent feedback and constructive advice on both work and conduct, managers can keep new workers motivated to perform well.

Many managers are reluctant to provide feedback on behavior and conduct, but in the case of the intern, it’s essential. If they don’t learn it from you, they might never learn it. Proactively point out good business conduct as well as high quality work, and give constructive feedback when it’s needed. Be specific to the issue at hand, remembering to include the big picture for constructive criticism and point to the larger business need for a job well done.

While interns and new grads shouldn’t be held to a lower standard than more seasoned employees, they do often require a bit of extra management. By showing them the big picture, encouraging questions to eliminate confusion, and providing frequent feedback on both conduct and performance, you’ll be preparing the next generation of workers for an easy transition from academic life to business life.