In South Africa’s tough job market, experience is an essential item on any CV. Yet these days, securing an internship to gain that experience is almost as hard as landing a job, and those who can get a foot in the door in this way should ensure that they make the most of the opportunity, an education expert says.
“An internship is a fantastic chance to get to grips with the demands of the world of work, and if you approach it correctly, you will not only add valuable experience to your CV, but potentially even be able to make such an impression that you are considered for a full-time position,” says Elbie Liebenberg, Principal of Oxbridge Academy, which serves more than 20 000 South African distance learning students every year.
But she warns that interns should bring their A-game if they want to reap the full rewards of the opportunity.
The first rule of being an intern is to take your professionalism to the next level, she says.
“This means that you need to dress neatly and appropriately for the role, always be punctual, be willing to learn, and complete your tasks to the best of your ability, even if those tasks seem boring or mundane. Also, be friendly and polite to everyone, and stay away from office gossip…”
Once the first rule has been observed, there are four other ways in which interns can really make themselves stand out to catch the eye of the company’s decision makers and hiring managers, she says.
Understand the Environment and Stay Busy with Relevant Tasks
“Too often, interns find that those around them are too busy to delegate work, and then they end up bored and sitting on social media all day long waiting for something to come their way. Soon the few weeks or months of the internship will be over, and the opportunity completely wasted,” notes Liebenberg.
The way to counter this is to research the company, network with those around you, learn and understand what they are doing, and offer to help out with tasks rather than wait for tasks to be assigned to you.
“Always show that you are interested in learning by asking questions, offering assistance, and giving input where you can. And don’t be afraid to speak up about your ideas.”
“The more you contribute, and the more you complete tasks successfully, the bigger the likelihood that more and more work will be passed your way. By the end of your internship, you will have made yourself a useful part of the team, and employers may decide that you will be a valuable permanent addition…”
“Even if that does not happen, you will be assured of a glowing recommendation, and you’ll have learned important skills that will stand you in good stead when going to interviews and when starting your first real job.”
Find a Mentor and Build Your Network
“An internship allows you to build professional relationships with people in your field, which means that even if you don’t land a position at the company where you are interning, your new contacts are likely to alert you to any suitable opportunities that arise in the industry,” says Liebenberg.
“It’s also a good idea to find a mentor, someone who has been in the industry or the company for a few years, who can guide you and advise you about your field and about those practical aspects you wouldn’t have learned about during your studies.”
Ask for Help
A big mistake some interns make is to think that they are incapable or that they have failed if they are asked to do something and they don’t know how.
“Nobody expects an intern to be able to do everything that is thrown their way,” says Liebenberg.
“Everyone understands that an internship is a learning curve, and that it can be quite overwhelming. So if you strike a blank on something, or if you’re unsure of what it is you are being asked to do, get clarification and assistance straight away…”
Each unfamiliar task is an opportunity to learn and grow, and build your confidence, notes Liebenberg. “Enjoy the feeling of empowerment you’ll get from completing something successfully, and from knowing that you’ve acquired a new skill,” she says.
It is also important to remain open to constructive criticism and not to go on the defence, as this is all part of the experience.
Keep Notes and Follow Up
During your internship, keep notes of all the different tasks you have mastered and the contributions you have made to the team.
When your time with a company nears its end, ask whether you may schedule a short meeting with the departmental head or HR. Then use that opportunity to discuss what went well, and to ask for the leader’s insight and advice going forward.
“It’s important at this stage to thank them for the opportunity, and to demonstrate that you are a good fit for the company, that you enjoyed working there, and that you would like to be considered for future opportunities should they arise…”
“It’s not easy to come into a work environment as an intern. In fact, it can be quite a daunting experience,” says Liebenberg.
“You want to ensure that the people you will be learning from take you seriously and know that you take the opportunity seriously too. When going into an internship, understand that the value and the potential of the opportunity are very much in your hands, and that the impression you make could lead to many beneficial connections for your future.”