It’s that time of year. Students hoping to land summer internships are flooding inboxes with their résumés. Managers should hire as many as possible. It’s good for the company but even better for the student—and for society. Pay them? Don’t pay them? It doesn’t matter. Just let them in the door.
In my junior year of college, I got an internship at Hewlett-Packard . It was way across the country in Cupertino, Calif., where Apple ’s spaceship headquarters is today. To save money, since I had little, I got an apartment with no furniture, slept on the floor, used a shopping cart for a dresser, and borrowed a friend’s bike to get to work.
HP was a fun place, with a pretty loose work culture and beer bashes most Fridays. I coded math functions in what’s known as microcode for a future minicomputer, because they didn’t trust the guy designing the chip to do it. I learned a lot about deep technology but nothing about business, marketing or sales. It was a big company, so I also missed a peek into the startup culture then bubbling up in the Bay Area. A shame.
Still, I can’t think of anything better for college students than plopping them in the middle of some exciting enterprise. It almost doesn’t matter what the company does; good interns absorb it all. I call it learning by osmosis. Lessons about your industry, trends, pricing and profits can’t help but work their way into the pores and brains of hungry students bored from endless reading assignments and seminars.
Put them at the center of whatever a company does—not in the copy room. I can almost guarantee that they’ll be a net positive. The payback usually comes in the form of a single good idea, one productive change that fresh eyes will see while others, especially those sucking up for a promotion, won’t.
A few years ago a nasty controversy erupted over intern pay. The Atlantic ran a story, “Why Free Internships Are Immoral.” Unpaid interns for the movie “Black Swan” won a suit against Fox for back pay, later reversed and eventually settled. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization even caught flak when an editor put out a request for an editorial intern, “part-time, unpaid.”