Getting the most out of internships

The ins and outs of finding—and working with—quality interns

Published in FSD Update

By 
Dana Moran, Managing Editor

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Current employees are more likely to respect—and treat as equals—interns who jump right in to work, says Dana Ogan, dietetic internship director at Central Washington University.

They’re young, plucky and ready to roll up their sleeves. At least, that’s what operators hope to find in each fresh crop of interns.

“I’m not expecting them to come in with much in the way of experience or knowledge,” says Kris Ingmundson, food safety coordinator for the University of Georgia in Athens, Ga., who arranges internships for both college and high school students. “I want to see the enthusiasm and that they’re not scared by washing dishes.

Yes, interns will be washing dishes. But the experience also should be a valuable one for both operators and these short-term hires. FoodService Director spoke to Ingmundson and Dana Ogan, dietetic internship director for Central Washington University in Ellensburg, Wash., who coordinates internships at schools and hospitals, about the ins and outs of seeking out quality interns—and making the most of their time.

Experience can matter more than a transcript

A student’s grades don’t always add up on paper to reflect his or her work ethic, Ogan says. “You can tell that [some students] had to work through school, maybe they have a family,” she says. “Those can be the greatest interns. They know how to multitask, they’re a little more mature.” Interns with foodservice experience—both back- and front-of-house—also are more likely to understand how a kitchen works and won’t be blindsided on their first day, she says.

Passion can matter more than experience

While Ingmundson agrees that any kind of prior foodservice work—from slicing deli meat at the grocery store to a stint behind the counter at McDonald’s—is a positive for interns, sometimes those who don’t have the experience are able to articulate their passion for the business. “That intern has to be exceptionally excited about learning and flexible to do lots of different things; they have to be really self-motivated and seem really eager to take on ownership of their own experience,” she says. “Those can be difficult things to assess in an interview, but it’s worth trying.”

Hire interns during your busiest times for maximum impact

While internships traditionally may have been thought of as a summer gig, Ogan says many FSDs she works with prefer to bring their interns in during busy pockets or for special projects throughout the year. “I think foodservice can be crazy busy and have its ups and downs,” she says. “I just had a meeting with one operator, and she was telling me she’d love to have an intern during her commodity orders, which is only a two-week window.” Ogan recommends operators work up a predictable annual timeline so they’ll know in advance when an intern will be the most helpful.

Treat interns like an employee

Employees will have increased respect for interns who jump in and are able to do the same work, Ogan says. “I find that interns who are given the most responsibility, they actually do the best because they’re kind of treated as an equal,” she says. “If they’re given meaningful tasks and not just frivolous work, they rise to the occasion.” For example, she says, an intern working in school foodservice who is told that his or her project will be audited will take that task very seriously.

Maintain appropriate boundaries

There is, however, such a thing as too much responsibility. Ogan cites employee discipline as something interns should absolutely not be involved in. Ingmundson says the amount of responsibility can vary from person to person. “Observation before handing over the reins is always a good idea,” she says. “Some interns, at the end of the semester I’d be happy if they ran a shift at one of my buildings, others not. Paying attention to their abilities is key.”

Goals are key—for both employers and interns

Ingmundson says she sees her role as both a coordinator and a mentor, and says it’s important that interns have thought enough about their futures in foodservice. And if operators are coordinating an internship the right way, it’ll be a lot of work—but that investment should be worthwhile. “Work out specific goals with desired outcomes, and create experiences that match those goals,” she says. “All of that is a very personalized approach, but I think if you take the time to do that, you end up with a better experience for both intern and operator.”

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