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Talent Development

Internships: The New Rules

Interns can be a great resource for your company because they bring you fresh perspectives, are eager to learn and take on projects, and typically work for cheap, or free. Interns like internships because it’s a great way to make connections and gain some real-world job skills to put on a résumé. Internships are great for the community because they provide students with jobs and opportunities that keep them from moving out of town with their talent.

Interns can be a great resource for your company because they bring you fresh perspectives, are eager to learn and take on projects, and typically work for cheap, or free. Interns like internships because it’s a great way to make connections and gain some real-world job skills to put on a résumé. Internships are great for the community because they provide students with jobs and opportunities that keep them from moving out of town with their talent.


Not all internships are created equal. And, as eager as interns may be, “training” them to fetch coffee and refill the copy paper for free not only reflects poorly on your organization, but it’s illegal.

In fact, a recent court ruling may be the beginning of the end for unpaid internships. Two interns working on the film Black Swan brought a suit against Fox Searchlight because they had worked as paid employees and not received any education that is required for an unpaid internship to be legal. They won and are owed back pay for all their work.

And interns are paying attention.

Here’s the deal: an intern is not there to get you coffee or refill your copy paper. An intern is there to learn and grow, gain skills that can advance his or her career. That is the value they get for working for you without pay. An intern is not there to do grunt work, fill an entry-level position for free; an intern is there to learn. It’s the law.

The Department of Labor says that for an unpaid internship to be legal, it must include training similar to what would be given in an educational environment. Further, the employer must not get any immediate advantage from the internship, it must be entirely for the benefit of the intern.

Despite the fact that many unpaid internships are illegal, they continue because interns want the experience and don’t speak up. The Black Swan ruling may change that. This media attention will have interns looking more closely at what they are getting for their unpaid time.

Even if they aren’t filing lawsuits, you can bet the ultra-connected Gen Y intern pool will be talking about it on social media, telling others not to work for your company if they have a bad experience. Standards have shifted, and interns know they’ve got some control.


Organizations need to start thinking differently about internships. They are not a great way to get free labor; they are a great way to attract young talent and fresh ideas. And that talent, those ideas, they are valuable to your organization, because guess what, they might just show you how to attract and keep the ephemeral Millennial employee. Providing a great internship experience is the first step in a long and loyal relationship with new talent that you get to vet for free.

Zs came of age in an era of disruption

In many ways, it’s symbolic that Generation Z is named after the last letter in the alphabet because their arrival marks the end of clearly defined roles, traditions, and experiences. After all, Gen Z is coming of age on the heels of what has been referred to as the most disruptive decade of the last century. America has become an increasingly changing and complex place.

For example:

  • ‍Zs were born into a “modern family era” in which highly involved dads help out at home, and the nuclear family model (two parents, married, with children) represent only 46% of American households.
  • ‍Zs are the first generation to be born into a world where everything physical, from people to places to pennies, has a digital equivalent.
  • From the time they were infants, Zs had access to mobile technology. As a result, their brains have been trained to absorb large amounts of information, and Zs are especially adept at shifting between skills and subject matter.
  • Zs tend to have crystal-clear memories of sitting up for the first time at six months old because they can easily and quickly reference the photos and videos their parents shared on social media or saved in the “cloud”. 

Members of this generation have undoubtedly been shaped by crisis and disruption. This generation will largely be responsible for confronting the aftermath of the Great Recession, high youth unemployment, the effects of climate change, terrorism, energy sustainability, and more. These dark events have undoubtedly made this generation more cautious and pragmatic, but they have also provided this generation with the inspiration to change the world – and their grit will likely allow them to do it.

Coming of age during disruption means that most Zs will be comfortable being the disruptors. While Millennials tend to be collaborative and innovative, this generation tends to be sincere, reflective, thick-skinned, and self-directed, and will likely approach work in much the same way.

Zs were raised to be competitive

In the era following World War II, Boomers (1946-1964) were born and eventually became the wealthiest, most prosperous generation in history. Raised to aspire for the American Dream, this very large generation moved into positions of power and influence, and served as the workforce majority for 34 years.

With the American Dream alive and well, Boomers had no reason to teach their children, mostly Millennials, about competition. Instead, they taught them to focus on academic achievement and to be team players because if everyone works hard, everyone can win.

Enter Generation X (1965-1981). In contrast Boomers, Xers came of age during a time when change and economic and political uncertainty began to take root. They have lived through four recessions, struggled with debt and economic decline most of their lives, and watched the best educated and accomplished generation of all time (Millennials) graduate during the Great Recession and become the most debt-ridden generation in history.

Gen Xers can be defined by their independence and anti-status quo approach to life, and they have taught their Gen Z children to be competitive, believing only the best can win. They have encouraged their children to be realists, finding something they are good at and aggressively pursuing it.

Xers have raised their Zs with an intense focus on competitiveness -- in academics, sports, and other activities. This approach to parenting has many implications, but one stands out in terms of business: Gen Z is likely to lead.

Millennials in the workplace created and aggressively advocated for collaborative work environments. In fact, their aversion to leadership has been so strong, some Millennials sought out companies that boasted boss-free or team-managed workplaces.

In contrast, Zs have been raised with an individualistic, realistic, and competitive nature. They have been taught the skills to successfully defy the norm. This means we’re going to see the pendulum shift away from collaborative workplaces towards a widespread demand for, and pursuit of, leadership development.

Zs are career-focused.

While Millennials have been criticized for their “delayed adulthood”, Gen Z is showing signs of “early adulthood”. Educators and parents often describe this generation as being more serious and contemplative about the world. Zs are thinking about their career paths and exposing themselves to career training at an earlier age than Millennials. It’s probable that some of this early onset of adulthood is caused by parents, who are pressuring their children to be competitive and successful and to avoid the debt that plagued both the Gen Xers and Millennials.

The numbers from our global research found 46% of Gen Z said they know what career to pursue and 51% have taken a class at school focused on their career interests. Forty percent joined an extracurricular program (team, club) based on their career interests.

Zs are seeking financial security. 

Zs have been shaped by the aftermath of the Great Recession. They watched Millennials become debt-ridden and are concerned about falling into the same trap. XYZ University’s survey results show 66% of Zs said financial stability is more important than doing work they enjoy, which is the exact opposite of Millennial survey results.  Also, 71% of survey-takers have a paying job.

Zs value leaders who are positive and trustworthy.

When presented a list of leadership traits, Zs ranked positive and trustworthy the highest. While Millennials and Gen Zs both value trust in a leader, Millennials usually cite collaboration and vision as most important. In other words, Millennials focus on the outcomes leaders inspire, whereas Zs are more likely to consider leaders’ attitudes and personalities. To Z, what leaders encourage others to do isn’t as valuable as how they make them feel.


Zs want to be challenged.

Both Millennials and Gen Zs place a very high value on feeling challenged and appreciated in the workplace. However, according to our survey results Millennials rank appreciation slightly higher than challenge, whereas Zs rank feeling challenged slightly higher than appreciation.

Time will tell how Zs go down in history, but we know this generation’s influence on history will be unlike any other.


Does your organization have what it takes to engage the next generation? Take this quiz to find out.


Sarah Sladek is CEO of XYZ University. Our generational intelligence can assist you with engaging and retaining young talent and members.

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