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The Hill Life: Teach Your Interns Well

On the Hill, we talk a lot about our expectations for our interns.  We expect them to be courteous, competent and eager to learn.  But I don’t think we talk enough about what we, as full-time paid staff, should be teaching them. 

Too many interns complete their semester of servitude knowing nothing more than how to give a tour and sort mail.  This is unacceptable.  Don’t believe me?  Ask the Department of Labor, whose guidelines explicitly state that a free internship must be similar to training provided in an educational environment.

So what should you be teaching your interns?

Phone skills are critical.  Interns must learn how to talk to constituents, how to calm angry callers or at least placate them, and how to repeat the same talking points thousands of times without spitting them out like they don’t matter.

Working in a congressional office is closer in practice to working in a customer service call center than it is to working in any other field.  The voters are your customers and the customers must be treated with respect.  It is a staffer’s job to listen to them, educate them and pass their thoughts along to the Congressman.

Even if your interns don’t choose to stay on the Hill, learning to interact with the public is a valuable skill.

In my opinion, being able to research and summarize a complex issue is the most valuable, critical thinking skill that Hill interns can learn.  How to read a report, a news article or a bill and sum up the important policy points is like being able to speak a foreign language.  So take some time to teach your interns how to write a standard research memo. 

Don’t know where to start?  Have them sort through the Dear Colleague letters or read the local newspaper and choose a topic that appeals to them. 

Making a persuasive argument goes hand in hand with being able to do legislative research.  Because once you understand an issue, you should be able to tell your Boss where you think he needs to be on that issue.  What about commodity prices, for example, matters to your district?  Which groups and voters care about this issue?  And does your Boss need to take a stance or get involved?

Once you learn about an issue, being able to make a cogent argument to support your position on that issue is the next logical step. 

Some interns also want to learn specialty skills like scheduling, press writing or committee work.  You should encourage these interests, but first you have to get to know them.  And yes, that means you actually have to talk to the interns.

What are they studying in school?  What are they interested in?  Do they want to work on the Hill someday, and if so, what job in the office appeals to them? 

Who knows?  If you nurture their talent early on, you might be able to lighten your workload a bit.  I once had an intern who was such a good writer that I didn’t write a co-sponsor memo for almost three months.  It was bliss.  And when she left us, she got a job in PR for a local government relations firm based on the strength of her writing samples.  It was a mutually beneficial relationship.

Interns come to the Hill to learn.  To learn how to answer the phones, how to research and how to write.  They come here to learn the difference between a rule and a suspension, an H.R. and an H.J.Res, a media alert and a press release.  It is your job to teach them.  And if you’re not taking your role as teacher/mentor seriously, the interns aren’t the only ones who you are failing. 

When they leave you, your interns add your Boss’ name to their resume.  If they are poorly taught and inadequately trained, that reflects poorly on him and on you.  Think of interns like emissaries who carry your Boss’ reputation with them wherever they interview or work. 

So if you’re reading this post and wondering if your interns have learned any of the skills listed above this summer, now would be a good time to find out.  Because you only have a few short weeks to fill their little heads with knowledge before they leave you.  And if they leave an empty vessel, their resume will forever brand them as your empty vessel.

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  1. Sarah says:

    Right on, Belle! I completely agree that those of us who manage interns (on and off the Hill) should give them opportunities to grow. Your office and the interns will mutually benefit. I have learned that intern management is a job all in itself, though…

    November 30, -0001/Reply
  2. bex says:

    Thank you for this post Belle! I was blessed to have a wonderful internship in a Senate press office a few summers ago. Out of my four communications internships, it best prepared me for my career because the staff took the time to get to know me, trust me with jobs, and give me real tasks. I often think about how much more prepared I would have been if my other three internships (two in particular) actually took the time to develop my skills – truly, it would have been better for them too, not just me. My positive experience also means I am always complimentary of the Senator and staff when asked about my experience. I also am a better informed citizen because of the experience, and if I’d been in an office that didn’t appreciate me I think I would have lost interest in politics. I really believe that offices that are good to their interns will reap tremendous benefits.

    July 20, 2011/Reply
  3. K says:

    Amen! I went from press intern, to press assistant and ultimately up to communications director in the same office because I was able to learn and dig in to actual work from the start of my internship. It takes 5 minutes to get your coffee, whereas it probably takes 30 minutes or more to produce a document – which amount of time would you rather have free to work on something while your intern tackles it for you?

    July 20, 2011/Reply
  4. Stefanie says:

    As someone who just spent her first year managing an intern, I'm glad to see that we were on the right track with her. The intern wrote fact sheets, attended meetings as our representative, and helped organize a Hill day for our members. We made sure that she had more substantive work than admin. Based on her experience, she now wants to do government relations work for associations.

    July 20, 2011/Reply
  5. N says:

    “When they leave you, your interns add your Boss' name to their resume. If they are poorly taught and inadequately trained, that reflects poorly on him and on you.”

    Very good advice in this post and great blog in general. Hate to nitpick but just gotta say I've noticed you always use the male pronoun when referring to the Boss and its become my pet peeve especially because my boyfriend works for a female senator!

    July 20, 2011/Reply
  6. Fan says:

    More fashion, less intern advice please.

    July 20, 2011/Reply
  7. Belle says:

    This blog provides fashion and career advice for young, professional women. If you want an all fashion blog, there are many to choose from, but this one isn't changing.

    July 20, 2011/Reply
  8. Belle says:

    N-My Boss is male, and I hate when people use the plural “they” to describe one person. No gender bias, I just have a male boss.

    July 20, 2011/Reply
  9. lulu says:

    I was just gonna say I love a blog that can talk about thongs in the morning and career advice in the afternoon…

    July 20, 2011/Reply
  10. Kit says:

    I quite enjoy and appreciate the career advice as a young professional woman. I don't work on the Hill, but I do work for the government, and much of what I see here also applies to my job. I was lucky and in my first position, my mentor went out of her way to do all of the things Belle mentioned above and I truly think it has made me much more effective at my job. Not to mention I enjoy it a lot more and now want to make it my career.

    July 20, 2011/Reply
  11. Belle says:

    lulu-What can I say? I'm multi-faceted.

    July 20, 2011/Reply