INTERNSHIPS: An invaluable resource during tight budgets

by Michael A. Harper, FAICP, Reno, Nevada

Internships by university students, and even high school students, can be a valuable resource during healthy budgets.  During tight budgets, as many public planning agencies and private consulting firms are experiencing, internships can prove to be invaluable.

During my 32 plus years as a public sector planning manager, I used paid and unpaid interns extensively and found the symbiotic relationship to be very beneficial to the staff, the programs, and the interns who worked in the organization. Over the years, I have found that there are many ways to effectively engage interns and use their talents.

Engaging interns

Some intern opportunities come to planning organizations. For example, during my career, high school counselors would approach our department from time to time about placing a senior student with the department. Often it was a senior who was considering planning as a course of study in college or maybe even a career. These opportunities typically only lasted as long as the high school counselor was approached by a high school senior. The more typical opportunity that comes to a planning organization is through a required internship for completion of a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in planning by a university. For example, my recent participation in the evaluation of the Alabama A&M bachelors and masters program in planning included mandatory internships for participants in the planning degree program. Alabama A&M has created an extensive list of planning organizations that participate in the placement of students with those organizations.

The most common way of engaging interns I found was to approach a university planning degree program and offer an internship. I never lacked for interested students, even some from outside the immediate city and county in which I worked. Interestingly, it didn’t really seem to matter whether a paid internship, or unpaid opportunity, was offered in order to attract candidates. When able, I included funds for the internship in the department’s budget. My philosophy was that if the intern worked for the planning program, they should be getting some compensation beyond university credit and work experience. Nevertheless, most years it was an unpaid internship that was available. Typically, I limited the number of available internships to two per semester. This provided a comfortable span of supervision for me or for a staff member who was interested in getting some management experience.

What should intern’s duties be?

Interns were never used by our program as ‘gofers’ or to supplement the clerical staff’s duties. Interns were never assigned responsibilities that were a full-time staff member’s responsibility. As part of the interview and engagement process, one or two projects would be mutually identified between the intern and me. To the extent possible, the department would try to find a project that fulfilled a need in the work program and could also further the intern’s required studies for their degree (one of my interns turned his internship project into his masters’ thesis). The agreed upon project was the intern’s responsibility to be completed during the internship. The intern was advised that the resources and staff of the department were available to them. In some instances, a staff member was assigned as the intern’s supervisor/mentor.

It was expected that the intern would make at least one public presentation of the project’s results to an appointed or elected body. One of my last interns before I retired participated in a terrific presentation with one of the staff on wind energy opportunities in the county that received kudos from the planning commission and the board of commissioners. She is now a planning commissioner for the city in which I reside.

In addition to the project, interns were introduced to the range of responsibilities of a planning department. This included counter assistance (with a staff member present), application review and presentation of a recommendation to an approving body, and attendance at committees for which the staff represented the county. Interns, to the extent possible, were required to attend staff meetings and have regular office hours in the department (exceptions to the latter were made when mid-terms and finals were being taken).

Don’t forget about the importance of interviews

I never hired an intern until an interview with the student was completed. The interview usually consisted of the following:

  • Information about the organization: It is important to review the planning program’s mission, current projects and organization (including staff) as reflected in the adopted work program.
  • Description of the work environment: The interviewer should describe the working environment, e.g. type of computer and data resources that are available, the physical office layout, how the planning program fit in with the department’s other programs, and how the department’s responsibilities fit in with the overall organization’s (in my case the county for which I worked) mission and responsibilities.
  • Questions about background, interest and time commitments: The interview should include questions about the prospective intern’s educational background (especially relevant to planning), current computer skills, and most importantly, his/her interest in being an intern. It is also important to learn about the availability of the potential intern and when the intern could be in the office.
  • Background check and driving record: Whether paid or unpaid, the intern should complete a background check administered by the human resources department and become authorized to drive a county vehicle.

If the intern was hired, I developed and provided the intern with a memo identifying the schedule that the intern would be working, the duties of the intern and, if it was a paid internship, the hourly wage.

What are the benefits for the department?

  • Help for completing projects on time: Projects that needed attention, but for some reason (usually staffing levels) weren’t going to be completed in the desired timeframe for the program, could be completed using interns. For example, the county was encountering a significant issue with borrow pits. The construction industry wanted them as close as possible to construction sites, nearby residents opposed them because of the traffic, dust, etc. caused by them. The intern assigned to this project supervised a consultant (this was an older intern) who in turn developed a map that identified the best locations for industrial minerals in the county. This allowed for better siting of permanent borrow pits. In addition, a series of regulations for temporary borrow pits was developed and adopted by the county.
  • Fresh knowledge and practices: Interns often brought to the staff newer knowledge, practices and processes that helped the staff keep current with their profession. Interns injected a freshness that all staffs need from time to time.
  • Larger potential employment pool: Interestingly, interns can provide a ready employment pool when new or replacement staff is needed for a department or firm. During my career I hired three interns – one from Canada and two locally. They were knowledgeable of the department when they were hired as full-time staff which reduced, substantially, their training period.

What are the benefits for the intern?

  • Office experience: The internship provides a student with exposure to the operation of a department or firm; it gives them the ‘office’ experience that results in more quickly becoming a member of the planning team.
  • Products for their resume: The internship provides a ‘product’ that the intern can add to his/her resume. The ‘product’ also provides a tangible example of an intern’s ability to successfully work in the planning field.
  • Academic requirements: For an increasing number of planning degree programs, an internship fulfills one of the requirements of the degree.
  • References: The internship provides one or more professional references when the graduate enters the professional planning world.

Working with interns was one of the highlights of my planning career. They brought energy to the programs and staffs that I managed. They often completed the projects that were important to the long-range success of the department for which I worked. I felt that one of the attributes of a capable manager was to see staff and interns move on to more successful endeavors. With pride I saw many interns who worked with my department accomplish those more successful endeavors.

Michael Harper, FAICP, retired in 2009 from a 32 plus year career as a public sector planning manager. He is the treasurer of the National Association of County Planners, APA County Planning Division, and APA Nevada Chapter; and a board member of Western Planning Resources, and the Tahoe Foundation.
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