Placing interns at a local business in Florence is a service offered by an increasing number of American universities with campuses in Florence, such as Syracuse University (theflr.net/syracuse), and professional intern placement agencies, such as Global Experiences (theflr.net/globalexperiences). While most internships are in social media and communications, culture, food and wine, tourism and fashion, there are placements in many other areas.
In contrast to ‘internships’ exploited by businessesin constant search of cheap (or unpaid) skilled/semi-skilled labour, these internships are usually governed with strict rules dictating the conduct of both the intern and business involved—a tacit acknowledgment of the substantial tuition, fees and living costs that students and their families must meet in order to study here in Florence. Moreover, it makes good business sense: a student’s great experience will result in good feedback, thus ensuring future revenue. The ‘foreign’ student interns thus have a strong voice in the college or placement program that negotiates with the business on their behalf (something, unfortunately, that Italian university students lack—perhaps the subject of another article). Consequently, the colleges and intern placement businesses’ high standards and close monitoring ensure that the host businesses are providing a meaningful experience and not just enjoying some excellent free labour from a digitally enabled native English speaker.
But there is another side to the coin. Florentine businesses are increasingly becoming astute, recognising that even in the short time they have these interns, they can learn a great deal from these young but often experienced people, who typically have held other jobs before and have a strong work ethic, and who bring different core skills and perspectives—indeed, they may offer a whole new outlook to the overall business picture.
The small business here in Florence in which I am a partner recently decided to request an overseas intern. The experience was enlightening. The intern agency interviewed us and ensured that we fully understood the deal. We were thoroughly vetted, and it was made absolutely clear to us what was and was not acceptable in terms of tasks to be assigned and behaviour on our part. We were introduced to a candidate, selected by the agency on our behalf. Our first intern, a young American woman from Maryland, began working for us at the beginning of October.
In these few months we have learned a great deal about how to introduce a non-Italian speaker with no specific industry skills into a fully fledged and horribly busy company—at speed—and how to encourage the ‘self-starter’ skills that businesses value. First, from day one, we assigned some independent tasks that the intern could conduct while the firm handled the latest emergency situation, got out that last-minute quote out, handled some bad social media fallout, or whatever would have distracted us from the intern (research projects are a great way to get an intern to self-train and keep busy during those critical business moments). Second, we kept up non-business dialogue with the intern: ‘How’s your day going?’; ‘What did you do last night?’; ‘What are you enjoying most in Florence?’ Keeping tabs on how the intern is feeling in the job and outside work hours is important in building a relationship and spotting any potential problems. Third, we made it clear that, if faced with downtime, she should request independent tasks or feel free to come up with some of her own. And, finally, we let her know that the dialogue we started should be truly that: ask the boss and co-workers how they are, how they spend their weekends and where they live—it will make integration easier.
In our case, we decided to keep a private blog of intern experiences as a resource for future interns. Here’s an excerpt from our first intern in her first week:
After I found out that I would be working online from home, I started to sort out a few sporadic thoughts/questions that came into my mind—would I be able to focus on the tasks that I am assigned? How will I be able to prove how many hours I worked without formally going into an office? And most importantly, will I be useful for the company at all or will I only just cause more of a headache for them? (…)
Our positive experience is just one of many that interns and businesses have had in Florence. But of course it’s not always all positive. Both interns and businesses make mistakes, some that they can correct themselves and some that require the cavalry to save the day. But what is important is that both parties value what they bring to each other and are learning from the experience.