Using Our Internship Program as an Incubator for Civic Tech Talent

The first time I hired an intern, I was working for the D.C. public school system, supporting a major overhaul of the program under a new Chancellor. It was 2007, and we had fewer than a dozen full-time employees on the team to guide the transition. We had our work cut out for us, and I found Brittiany, a bright young scholar from Stanford University, through the college’s D.C.-based internship exchange. She was fantastic—one of the most hardworking people I ever met—and she left a big mark on D.C. public schools.

My second intern came by luck. She called D.C. Public Schools looking for volunteering opportunities. I happened to answer the phone, and I told her, “Please join our team, we need you.” Steffi, a rising sophomore at the University of North Carolina, did not know when she made that call that a few days later she would be leading the High School Credit Recovery program—one of the most challenging and successful initiatives of the education overhaul of Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty.

Both women were young and inexperienced at the time I hired them, but they learned quickly, rose to meet the high expectations I set for them, and became indispensable members of the team. Years after I had left the D.C. public school system, I co-founded a new company, and knew I needed to hire people I could trust. 11 years later, both Brittiany and Steffi are crucial members of the Phone2Action team today.

Many successful leaders in their industries started their careers as interns. Boeing’s CEO Dennis A. Muilenburg started as an intern in 1985. Roger Goodell was hired as an administrative intern with the National Football League in 1982. 36 years later, he is the President of the NFL.

Internship programs have the potential to make a tremendous, positive impact on both the interns and the companies that hire them. In order to have a successful internship program, companies need to ensure their interns are given substantial work, from which they can derive meaningful skills and lessons that will stay with them forever.

We Call Them Fellows, Not Interns

At Phone2Action, we made the decision to have interns early on, when we were only a small team of four. In 2014 and 2015 we had just one intern, but the program grew quickly. In 2016 we had 15, in 2017 there were 20, and this year we have 25. We chose to call them “fellows” rather than “interns,” because they take on a lot more responsibility than a typical intern. Our fellows get deep exposure to civic technology and work hand-in-hand with the rest of the team, taking on an apprentice role. Fellows are given substantial projects that directly contribute to our business goals. You won’t find any Phone2Action fellows fetching coffee or making copies.

As a former educator, I know kids have tremendous potential. When they are thrown into a culture of high expectations, it is critical they receive support at the highest levels of the company to meet their true potential. While it takes some time and patience on the part of the full-time employees to onboard interns, it has always proven to be more than worth the effort. In a supportive environment, young people never cease to impress me with their maturity, wisdom, and purity of heart.  

Many of our fellows are millennials or members of Gen Z. Learn more about how you can engage youth in advocacy campaigns.  

Why Solid Internship Programs Are Worth the Investment

Setting up a worthwhile internship program requires some work, but the benefits outweigh the challenges. Here is why I think every company should have an apprenticeship program.

Build a pipeline of new talent for your field. College coursework doesn’t often prepare students for the basics of real-world industries. If you’ve ever hired a recent graduate for an entry-level position, you know that there’s a lot they need to learn, even if they are extremely hardworking and intelligent. Every industry and company differs in its skill set requirements, and an apprenticeship program fully immerses students in a real work environment—building enthusiasm for your field and helping to create a pipeline of new talent who want to work in your industry full-time after they graduate.

Increase productivity. If you give your interns meaningful projects that actually contribute to your business, they provide extra short-term support, expanding the overall bandwidth of your team allowing for more to get done in less time. Further, if your interns are given the freedom to suggest their own ideas, they might make contributions that might never have occurred to your full-time employees because of their workload and responsibilities.

Find your next full-time employees. Hiring employees and going through various rounds of interviews and background checks can be taxing for your organization and your resources. However, interns who have been working with your company are an outstanding resource to pull from when you’re ready to hire more people. Just this year, three former fellows joined us in a full-time capacity after they graduated, and they are some of the most dedicated employees we’ve had here at Phone2Action.

Give back to the community.  We can complain about the STEM shortage or we can do something about it. Many kids, especially younger girls, do not have exposure to technology and never consider pursuing it professionally. This is a practical way to help them. Technology companies in particular are well-positioned to encourage more young Americans to pursue STEM careers. By hiring students while they are still in school, we are providing young people with exposure to careers in technology.

Improve your company culture. Interns bring energy, an appetite for innovation, and new perspectives, which are critical for establishing a strong future for your company. They also help to create a culture of learning and support, which is important for any work environment, no matter the level of experience of the employees.

Provide professional development opportunities for your employees. Interns push managers to be the best versions of themselves. In our manager training sessions, we remind managers that they lead the way by example. An apprenticeship program can be extremely rewarding for the managers, giving them the opportunity to help someone who’s earlier in their career discover their strengths and talents. It also gives some employees the opportunity to be a manager earlier in their own careers, allowing them to hone their management and leadership skills even if they aren’t in charge of an entire team.

Social media is a great way to promote your organization and harness new talent. Find out why the best grassroots advocacy campaigns are social media savvy. 

Meet the 2018 Phone2Action Civic Tech Fellows

This summer, 25 youths from all corners of the country are joining us to work on civic technology projects at Phone2Action. They are extremely diverse in their backgrounds, geography, majors, and points of view, but they all have a strong interest in technology and advocacy. We’ll be sharing their stories and their contributions to Phone2Action throughout the summer. I can’t wait to see what they do!

internship program

The 2018 Civic Tech Fellows and their managers

Meet Gen Z: What Advocacy Means to the "We Generation"

Learn more about our fellowship program on our careers page.

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