Intern-o Inferno

2 07 2012

Not long ago, I lamented the fact that there are so few options for kids who aren’t going to school. The teenagers are most often chased around half-heartedly until age seventeen, when they’re told to go get their GED. Working with then is frustrating. They want their diploma, if not a college degree, and they want to be able to get a good job. They just can’t bring themselves to get to school everyday.

The girl who really spurred me to action had turned seventeen, and only wanted to work. She had spent her life taking care of her younger siblings and their mother, and just didn’t have time for school. All the statistics in the world about how much her lifetime earning potential would improve with college didn’t matter–she wanted to work.

I thought about what might work for her, and then it dawned on me. Interns! Our interns! Duh. How could you be so stupid, SJ?

There are a few great programs for over-age, under-credited high school students once they turn seventeen. They’re given paid internships, some of which Anonymous Agency is kind enough to offer. They make money, which encourages and enables them to stay in school, which is modified to fit their needs and schedule, and they gain valuable work experience. Not everyone has the sick professional connections of high school SJ– I mean, my brother’s roommate’s mom was a librarian.

I was fortunate in my first job. It was pretty easy for me to do well. For one thing, I shelved books, and I know how to count and alphabetize.

For another, my parents set a good example. They have the sort of work ethic that should really only come from growing up in the Great Depression, or being a nun. If they could stand, they went to work. If I wasn’t actively throwing up on myself or others, I went to school. This carried over onto my first job, and all subsequent ones. My mother’s voice saying, “What does that mean, ‘not feeling well?!’ The books will everywhere! It shall be anarchy!” has been internalized. My father’s complaints about the unprofessionalism of his staff who wear flip-flops to work and loudly rehash episodes of Springer have stuck with me.

I hated it when I was younger, and friends told me they had missed a day of school because they had a headache or took a day off from their part-time job were up late the night before (no threats of imminent death, even!) but I realize now that it was a privilege that gave me a good head start. Sure, it would be nice if I could call in sick without feeling even sicker with guilt, but it’s set me up for a successful future.

A majority of the kids I work with miss a lot of school. I’m not talking about the ones who are sent in for educational neglect when they don’t attend thirty days in a row. They just miss days, here and there, consistently. Or they’re late. They oversleep, they stay home to help their parents with something, medical appointments are scheduled on school days, they claim to be sick and their parents ask the kid to report the thermometer reading independently, and don’t follow through with the hard-hitting questions of, “So then we need to go to the doctor?” or “Look at my eyes. You’re too sick for school, really? Honestly?” (Amateurs.)

This gets pretty frustrating when trying to get kids to go to school regularly, and trying to get their parents to understand that they need to support this. It’s even worse when a person who has grown up with the “School? Maybe. Not today” mentality is now working for you.

The seventeen to twenty one year old interns we get are, obviously, young. It’s a first job for most of them. A majority of them have grown up in families like I described, in which getting to school on time everyday was a priority somewhere between “walking the dog” and “buying pretzels.” Also, we’re a social work agency, so we like to be nice, encouraging, and high five whenever possible.

It may not seem like it, but these are ideal conditions for a throwdown of unprofessionalism.

Most of these young people are excited to come in to work. So excited, that they forget to fully dress themselves in the morning. There have been many half-shirts, or sweatpants advertising the wearer’s ass as being “Pink” or “Juicy.” (Yeah, we need to stop that, ladies.)

Some seemed excited to come in to work, but then…maybe weren’t. They started calling in sick, two out of three days, or coming in ten minutes to three hours late with no explanation. As social workers in a rough area, our minds immediately go to the worst case scenario. She’s been mugged! He’s being trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation! Her boyfriend snapped and beat her! By the time the kid rolls in, offering a shrug but no visible injuries, we’re just so relieved that he or she is all right that we let it go.

Sometimes, the intern in question does have an excuse. “I have a test tomorrow and I need to study.” Hey, school comes first, I respect your education! “My baby is sick.” Oh my, go! Do you need a referral to a good clinic? “The bus was late.” We’ve all been there. SJ tweets about it!

At some point, though, this fades. The excuses are more along the lines of, “I wasn’t feeling well.” Yes, it’s been three weeks, you might want to get that laziness checked out. “The bus took twenty minutes.” Yeah, that’s how long it takes everyday. Why are you three days late?

There are the performance issues as well. Of course people need to be trained for their first job. But at some point, you need to remember to write down the messages that you take, and answer the doorbell when it rings. I don’t know what else to say.

When no one is getting their messages, and the information that was supposed to be shredded was accidentally faxed to strangers, it needs to be addressed. But who is going to do that? Well, I guess I could, because I’m the one who had asked her to do that task. But really, the administrative assistant should, because she’s the direct supervisor. I suppose we could ask our director. I mean, the buck stops with her. Oh, could we call the intern’s program coordinator at her school?!

We’re social workers. The interns have a lot in common with the kids we work with. They tell us all about why things are so difficult for them, and about all the other responsibilities they have. We don’t want to make things worse for them, and we don’t want to be the bad guy. So we grumble quietly, and just do it ourselves.

I’m not blaming the interns (entirely.) We owe them more. We need to have enough respect for their intelligence and abilities to realize that they are capable of rising to meet expectations. Our kids are tough and resilient. They have dealt with much worse than constructive criticism, and they will continue to do so in their future employment. I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not doing them any favors if we send them off into the Real Work of Work thinking it’s ok dress like they’re attending some kind of trampy sleepover, or show up when the mood strikes.

So please, someone, tell the intern that she needs to put on a sweater. Because I really don’t want to do it.

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8 responses

2 07 2012
sarah

Once again, you’re giving me flashbacks… I worked in a summer day camp in the lower east side and the SYEP interns there were not so bad, also there wasn’t a whole lot asked of them I guess. But I also worked at a domestic violence agency in Brooklyn, and I had THREE interns and I pretty much overlooked that they didn’t do much of anything (it took them a week to alphebetize 1 box of files… together). But one day I asked one do to a very simple but important task and when I followed up 4 hours later she was on myspace (ah, 2006) and hadn’t started the task. I told her that it was important to do stuff like that in a timely manner, doing work is the whole point of the internship, and she WALKED OUT… and then the next day her guidance counselor called and tried to get ME fired. Classy.

2 07 2012
socialjerk

Oh, MySpace. The defensiveness is such a hard part to get through when someone isn’t going their job. Where does that come from? I recognize that some of it is immaturity, but there’s a stunning degree of entitlement in a situation like that.

I can only imagine what that kid told her guidance counselor!

2 07 2012
CT

Hmm… this is frustrating. I was raised in a home like yours, so what’s the solution, SJ? Clearly sweeping the under- or lack-of-performance under the rug isn’t helping. I think there are several factors here. Some are cultural. So how do we change that? We can’t keep letting people who don’t do their jobs keep their jobs–yet this is an issue with several of my coworkers too and it doesn’t change no matter how much I complain. And as youth, that’s the best time to learn, right? I’m surprised NO ONE talks to the interns to tell them it’s not acceptable. If no one tells them what they should do, how can they learn and improve? How will they be able to do a job and hold one later in life (although, as I said, I have some lazy coworkers currently)? If their parents won’t teach consequences, someone has to.

2 07 2012
socialjerk

It’s really not that “no one” corrects the interns. Pretty much everyone will say, hey, that message didn’t include a phone number, you need to make those photocopies I asked you to, or you need to call if you can’t make it in. But when it comes to a more serious consequence or discussion, there are a lot of factors. I think the main one is that fact that there’s not a clear supervisor. The administrative staff who are the ones typically giving the interns tasks and working with them, or the supervisors/director, or the worker from the student’s program? Plus, everyone has enough work to do, so quite often people feel that it’s easier to just do it themselves rather than hover over someone who is not going to be with us for more than a semester or two. And then there’s the fact that we know what these kids are dealing with at home, and, though it’s not good for them in the long run, we don’t want to make it more difficult. (As we’re so often bearers of bad news as it is!)

It’s like with the families we work with–so often what needs to be done is so obvious (just go to your public assistance appointment! = just answer the phone when you’re on desk!) but there’s a disconnect that is rooted in some serious underlying issues, whether they be cultural or whatever. But when the person is working for us, rather than a client, it’s not something we can really effectively deal with.

2 07 2012
socialjerk

Oh, but as for solutions–I think the kids need better work preparation and regular supervision from school staff prior to starting and throughout their internship. Just some more accountability and clearer expectations.

3 07 2012
carolynsocialworker

Yes, I think that if someone spoke to the interns (career and life management classes, if you have them or as an orientation first half day at work) and indicate to them that there is a certain level of coverage expected (no belly buttons out) and a certain level of work professionalism required, and that there will be logical consequences taken if not) then you can fit the punishment to the crime, i.e.) if they were late ‘cuz the spent half the night in ER ‘cuz of abuse, then obviously you’re not docking their pay, etc.

14 07 2012
Nicole

When I was in the HR field, I once asked the high school intern to alphabetize contracts so they could be easily filed. I think she basically shuffled the stack of paper like cards and proceeded to file contracts in whatever file she felt like sticking them in.

Told my supervisor who basically tasked me with making sure she corrected the mistakes. Unfortunately, after I had her go back and find every last contract and re-alphabetize them, she still didn’t do it right. I ended up filing everything myself and never asked the intern to do anything again. That was pretty much the attitude around the office – don’t give the intern anything.

The thing was no one had time to supervise her. I sure didn’t – was already working overtime to get things done during the busy hiring season. I don’t think that girl learned much of anything working for us. It was easier for us to pretend like she wasn’t there instead of trying to help her out. I’m sure many workers are in the same situation and don’t have time to straighten out interns.

I had much better luck years later when the intern was a college kid helping us do budgets at the health department. I think in some cases his work was better than some of the staff. No joke.

25 07 2012
Vetnita in MN

I used to run the summer youth program for my office. Seriously, the stories I could tell…. The key is to start off hard and mean. Sounds counter productive but it works. The kids start out interested and committed and you need to grab them then. Always have an initial two day training program where there are snacks but only for the first 10 minutes and then take them away. Be very clear about dress codes and be prepared to provide appropriate clothing as they will not have it. I always like it when the kids got uniforms, it solved soooo many issues. Have a one on one skill training for those first two days. If the kids actually get immediate praise for doing something right they will keep that skill. Give the kids a written job description and written slips that need to signed off by any staff using them. Yes, all of this means tons more work upfront but otherwise, the kids know that they don’t matter, their jobs are a joke, and nobody respects them. Don’t have an intern program if you are not going to run it like a job training program!!! (sorry youth work PTSD). If necessary, try to find a volunteer intern coordinator from a senior group. Seriously, older women (not social workers) really demand respect and give the kids someone outside the power structure to explain the stuff you understand without thinking about it. Did you know that if the police beat you and arrest you for carrying a knife to protect yourself from your ex., you still have to call and tell your job that you will be unable to come in this week???

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