How to Make the Most of Internships

Ask yourself strategic questions before committing to an internship program.

By Stephanie Vlach, MS
Aug 24, 2015

Internships are a fact of life in the fitness industry. All major degree programs related to fitness or exercise science require that students complete an internship prior to earning a degree. Colleges and universities want their students to have real-life work experience when they graduate. Internships help students discover their likes and dislikes; the work also helps them to form professional relationships and to differentiate themselves from the hundreds of other recent graduates vying for the same jobs.

David Curby, PhD, adjunct faculty, exercise and sport studies and student internship supervisor at Benedictine University in Lisle, Illinois, explains further: “Internships are necessary, and students acquire a great deal of technical material [from them]. Our students will be working in a service-based occupation, and an internship is their chance to develop the necessary interpersonal skills to apply their knowledge.”

As a manager, a university supervisor and an actual intern, I’ve had a fair amount of experience with internships. I completed two internships: one for my undergraduate degree and another as a graduate student. My graduate internship was fantastic. The program was highly structured, and my supervisor was an amazing mentor, teacher and advocate. I learned a great deal, and I created valuable connections with professionals whom I still communicate with and respect today.

The undergraduate internship didn’t go as well. Although I was excited and eager to learn, I spent most of my time making photocopies. When I wasn’t stuck in the business office, I was in an empty racquetball court watching the manager’s son whenever the babysitter wasn’t available. I trained one client (I was uncertified), watched a few fitness assessments and tried a group exercise class or two. Being young and inexperienced, I didn’t complain. I simply did as I was told—and as a result, I learned next to nothing.

If you’re a good manager, you want your interns and future hires to have a more educated experience than the one I’ve just described. Proper internships help our entire profession; mentoring is the key to a bright future. Sadly, some internships are subpar, with the students looked at as free labor and used simply to complete menial tasks. When internships are structured correctly, however, the manager and the student can have a mutually beneficial relationship. Taking on an intern is a bigger decision than you may realize, so here are a few variables to consider.

Why Are You Considering Hiring an Intern?

“For many organizations, interns provide another set of hands and eyes to assist clients who may need more individualized help in group activities,” Curby notes. “Interns can bring a new skill set, and generally they bring a fresh enthusiasm to their new profession.”

In a sense, working with an intern over the course of a semester is basically an extremely in-depth interview. Thus, an internship program is an excellent way to find new staff members. That being said, think about your end goal. Are you passionate about helping young professionals, and are you willing to integrate an intern into your team? Or are you just looking for an inexpensive way to staff your department? Think twice if it’s the latter.

A few years back, I was involved in a group faculty decision to terminate two student internships mid-semester. We found out that the students were spending much of their time scrubbing toilets, vacuuming and washing shower stalls. Although cleaning the equipment and keeping the club tidy are part of the job, students are not to be used as a substitute for a cleaning crew. Unfortunately, this misuse strained the relationship between the university and the facility. Of course, you can give interns entry-level tasks. But strike a balance between menial tasks and real learning.

Do You Have the Time and Patience to Work With an Intern?

You may have the best of intentions when hiring an intern, but supervising a new professional takes time and patience. The time investment is very similar to hiring and training a new employee, except that the learning curve may be longer since you are working with a student. An intern supervisor should have ample time to provide guidance, share knowledge and create learning opportunities. Supervisors also need to listen, teach and provide encouragement on a daily basis.

Most undergraduate interns aren’t certified. Initially, at least, they probably won’t be able to independently teach classes or work with clients. An intern who is instructed to “find work to do” may flounder, as most students require a lot of direction. “The best supervisors are mentors who demonstrate their skills and gradually give the intern more and more independence, all while giving feedback and discussing their craft. This requires a balance between just throwing them into tasks without any supervision and taking the ‘just be there and watch me’ approach,” advises Curby. If you decide that bringing on an intern is the correct decision, but your time is limited, one option might be to share the responsibility with a trusted staff member or colleague.

How Will You Structure the Internship Experience?

Prior to advertising for and hiring an intern, put a solid structure in place. This will make your life much easier in the long run. When creating that structure, think about the following:

  • Labor laws. Check federal and state laws regarding internship programs. Interns are covered under the Fair Labor Standards Act. Depending on the scope of your program, you may need to pay minimum wage and overtime. For more information, visit www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs71.htm.
  • Payment. If you aren’t legally required to pay an intern, still consider whether a paid internship program is right for your organization. Offering wages definitely makes your program more desirable. Some interns are paid hourly or receive a stipend upon successful completion. Other positions are completely unpaid.
  • Program plan. To make your job simpler, take into account internship seasons, start and end dates, resumé submission deadlines and interview arrangements. A health club that traditionally sees a lull in membership usage from June to August may opt not to take interns during the summer. Conversely, a facility that specializes in summer conditioning for high school athletes will have plenty of learning opportunities for an intern during those months. The manager of such a facility could advertise for the position in March each year, then conduct interviews in April and May for a June 1 start date.
    It’s also smart to develop a student intern job description. This forces you to think through learning objectives, daily responsibilities, projects, orientations and evaluation procedures. University requirements will vary, and students will have different interests, so you can certainly tailor the program to the individual. However, having a basic structure will set expectations for the student and will help you guide the experience from day one.
  • Organizational approval. You may feel that hiring an intern for your department is a great idea, but does the organization agree? Ideally, an intern will feel like part of the team, and organizational buy-in will help the intern feel included. Just as for any other staff member, increased involvement and acceptance lead to increased productivity.

Can You Provide the Intern With the Right Experiences?

Make sure the student is a good fit for your organization, and vice versa. For example, if your facility focuses on training athletes, but your intern is predominantly interested in working with active older adults and special populations, your program may not be adequate for the student’s goals. You will find that many students are unsure of their ultimate path, so encourage them to review the job description thoroughly.

Our industry’s success and future may very well depend on internships and on helping students succeed, learn and establish careers. There is a lot of personal and organizational satisfaction in that. If you are interested in running an ongoing internship program, create relationships with local universities. Once your organization is recognized and is on a pre-approved site list, students will start contacting you regularly. This may lead to a consistent influx of extra hands. It can also provide your organization with the opportunity to work with many up-and-coming professionals—and possibly your staff’s next rising star.

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Stephanie Vlach, MS

Stephanie Vlach, MS, is a certified fitness professional with 17 years of experience. She has held numerous roles and positions within the industry. Currently, she is a group exercise instructor and freelance writer in the Chicago area. She can be reached at [email protected]

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