Rant On Interns: Education Vs Experience

June 11, 2010
The Great Debate – Interns: Experience Vs Education
Do you hire interns based on experience or education? I’ve had a very interesting experience successfully securing an intern, but I also want to hear from everyone else. Great responses deserve their own blog post, and they are to follow.We got feedback from a head hunter turned career coach, Christian Hasse, where he offers advice for interns. Erik Anderson runs a marketing company and weighs in as someone who’s had a lot of experience hiring and managing interns.

Until then, here’s my journey through intern hiring.

The marketing department where I work recently went through an intern search as a result of my suggestions and our clear need for extra hands in said department.

Since this was the department’s first interns, we decided to take a no-risk approach by testing the waters with an unpaid position with an honorarium  upon completion, based on performance (and, unadvertised, potentially a junior position).

Through our interview process, I learned that a lot of students seemed to apply for everything without really 1) doing any background research and 2) really being keen on a position or company. We had students (and recent grads) come in without knowing anything about our company/brands or even the position applied for. Most never really bought into the position or company before interviewing – taking the “I’ll apply for everything and anything, then choose based on what I get” approach.

In the end, we offered the position to a handful of people. A lot of people seemed to favor the candidates with the impressive university education, regardless of their work experience (rather, lack-thereof).

My top choice, however, was an acquaintance who reached out to me via Facebook. While going to school we worked together at a high-end supper club – I was a bartender and he was a barback. After I left, he continued to work there and now, after four years and a stale marketing degree, he couldn’t seem to get a job in his desired field – marketing. And he really wanted to get that one chance to prove himself.

To me, that message just about secured him the position; however, few people understood why. Was I was playing into bar-industry nepotism? Was I hiring friends and not giving equal opportunities to the other candidates? That wasn’t the case at all: I saw him as someone who eagerly wanted the job and position… of all the candidates, he was the only one who showed an ounce of passion for this opportunity. He showed he was eager to learn and prove himself.

Additionally, his bar experience (which, from my experience, most people look down upon) also showed he is willing to work hard and not turn his nose up to redundant tasks; and most importantly, he showed signs of being someone who was extremely reliable and intelligent in order to survive four years in a venue riddled with political battles and high-turnover.

I know it’s not the end of the summer term yet, but he stands out as the top hire and highest performer. As one after the other bite the dust, it feels as though I’ve cracked the code in intern hiring: stop looking for the impressive pieces of paper, and start looking for the ones who give a shit and are willing to work for it.

However, as a college grad (did a three-year diploma with honors), I consistently got – and still get – people telling me it’s a shame I didn’t do the one-year transfer to university to get my BA. The message I receive time and time again is you have the experience, but we hire the piece of paper. And I think its bullshit.

Don’t Leave Your Angry Comments Quite Yet

I am not saying that everyone with a great education is useless, unwilling to get their hands dirty, suffers from entitlement issues, or is riddled with unrealistic expectations from employers. I’m saying passion and commitment should sometimes mean more than a piece of paper.

In terms of the unpaid aspect of the internship: I secured and successfully completed an unpaid internship position with the Fairmont Royal York and I felt damn lucky to have had that opportunity. Why grads these days turn their noses up to internships, I don’t understand. If you know, please leave a comment.

But don’t get me wrong, I don’t condone how some agencies consistently hire interns: unpaid and no possibility of getting hired after. Nor do I condone companies always looking for someone with 3+yrs experience, yet are unwilling to give the new kids a shot.

The conversation needs to change in regards to new hires.

The Debate Begins

I wanted to know if my opinion was biased and whether anyone else has seen this sort of result. So I asked – do you hire interns based on experience or education?

I got a lot of great responses, but one of the best was from Erik Anderson, Partner at the Infinity Print Group. As someone who has hired many an intern in his day, what  had to say is the next post.

And I suspect this conversation is just the begining. Please leave comments, tweet me or email me if you want to have your say in this. Until then, read on!

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6 Responses to “Rant On Interns: Education Vs Experience”


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Melissa Smich, Cassandra Jowett. Cassandra Jowett said: RT @smichm: The Intern Debate: Education Vs Experience — how do you hire? http://bit.ly/9k7UhU […]


  2. Because I chose to work for a start-up, I became a manager pretty much right out of university, and I’ve already worked with nearly a dozen interns in just over a year. I have really high expectations of the interns I hire and/or work with because I got my full-time job by being an awesome intern.

    When I’m hiring interns, education and/or experience will get candidates in the “interview” pile, but if they don’t rock the interview in three very specific ways, they don’t get hired.

    1) Showing how their skills, experiences and education translate into the role we’re hiring for.

    2) Demonstrating how passionate they are about the company, what we do, and/or the experience they stand to gain from working with us.

    3) Fit. I’m not going to hire someone I feel uncomfortable around or who I think will not feel comfortable with our culture and working environment.

    It sounds like you made the right hire for you, and I think that’s great!

    As for paid vs. unpaid internships… well, sure, you could argue that they’re exploitative, blahblahblah. But I would argue that unpaid internships are often more valuable than some paid internships, and they’re not going to go away anytime soon.

    As a manager, I like to think of unpaid internships as an extended interviewing process. Especially when you’re working for a small company, bringing on a new full-time, permanent employee is a huge expense, and one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. No matter what your education, you are not entitled to a $40K starting salary. You still have to prove yourself and earn your keep.

    I have A LOT more to say on this topic, but I’m getting kind of rambly. Awesome post! I can’t wait to see what kind of debates sprout up around this issue.


  3. […] The Intern Debate: Education Vs Experience « Subtle Nuances […]

  4. Tom Says:

    I think you’re right on the money with this. From an HR perspective, when you’re not hiring into a super specialized position, the person with the better fit will 95% of the time be the better hire. I’ve had issues at my workplaces where someone is fully competent and qualified, but without that fit, that passion, they don’t belong. Plain and simple.

    A degree is only an indication of an ability to pass a course. Its not an indication of knowledge, necessarily and its not an indication of how good an employee they will be.


  5. […] The Intern Debate: Education Vs Experience […]


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