Christina and I have been having a discussion about mentoring and internships.
…my reason for emailing you is to ask you if you know anyone who especially takes time to mentor people who want to start their own clothing business, and I mean critiquing, *one-on-one,* their business plans, budgets, forecasting, scheduling, you name it. I currently live in Orange County, Calif., but am returning to my hometown in Oregon in the spring, especially to pursue eco-fashion. I know there is a eco-fashion company and I intend to email them to possibly do an internship, but I would also like to talk to someone who is a veteran of clothing business in general who might be local who is willing to advise.
I’ve had several experiences working with interns, both positive and negative, when I worked for somebody else and when I had my own company. Working with an intern is different depending on whether you’re dealing with them as an employee or as an employer and I’d like to discuss both. My reply to Christina is a blanket response but I’ll explain my points in a moment. This is what I sent to Christina based on the perspective of an employer:
About mentoring/interning: I know all that is hot and has been but what about just getting a job? Honestly, after all the experiences I’ve had, I’d much prefer an employee to an intern. Both imply an investment of my time and money but with an intern, the implication is they’ll be moving on so I won’t get a return out of them for the investment of my time. The value of what an intern does in “exchange” for training them is *at best* negligible but it’s usually a net loss. At least with what I do, what I train for etc. Employee is better, same or better training. I don’t see what the advantage is to be an intern. Maybe I’m not up on things? What am I missing, tell me if I’m totally wet.
First the downsides of internships. Internship programs are usually set up by the college one is attending and that is where the problem lies. When I was an employee working with interns, I didn’t know that; as an employer, I do. Maybe the potential interns out there are thinking it doesn’t matter what another employee thinks of you but it does. Even if you go on to chair one of the most prestigious departments in the country, that former employee you worked with may end up writing the most highly rated book in the business and know more about your purported skills and professionalism than anyone should know. Heh. Besides, you’re just as likely to find a permanent job through contacts with employees as you are with the employer. Make nice, do good work and it pays off.
As an employee, I never had a good experience with an intern; there are three basic problems. The first is attitude; many have an inflated perception of their own value. Coming from “good” colleges, the first thing they’d do is survey the staff to see where we had gone to school -or if we had as the case may be- and as our college was never as good a school as they attended, they proceeded to treat the rest of us as ignorant unwashed heathens. Some are very quick to correct on matters of which they understood little, there’s a huge disconnect between what they teach you in school and the way it’s really done in real life. The second problem was lack of commitment and reliability. Since interning is basically a volunteer job, I found I couldn’t expect them to show up on time or according to schedule. It’s difficult to rely on someone who’s attendance is more casual than paid staffing. Accordingly, many of them got make-work which was either of limited utility or of low priority; work created to keep them busy while we got the real work done. The biggest problem though was mismatching the job to the intern. I realize that many design interns get shuffled into the pattern department, having neither the interest or skills to make it work but something has to be done about this. Working in patterns requires a longer term commitment with full eight hour days. If an intern is assigned pattern work, it must be done on time and they must stay the course to correct it as many times as needed. It’s no fun getting stuck cleaning up somebody’s work.
As an employer, I had an intern I enjoyed very much. I didn’t get anything out of it but it was a good experience. I did it mostly because I was curious about how colleges developed internship programs. The college this woman went to had ridiculous expectations. Of course interns were expected to do whatever needed to be done but also, they had assignments they had to comply with that conflicted with the needs of the job. Some of the assignments amounted to out and out spying; an intern could get fired for collecting and presenting that kind of information to an outside party. Of all the nerve! Some assignments were ridiculous and illustrated that the college advisers understood very little about the commercial environment. For example, this woman was learning pattern work in style development. One of her assignments was to grade a pattern. Well, it’s not done like that in the workforce, many companies outsource that. Besides, you never go from style development straight to grading if you haven’t gotten any sales on it. Her school assignments were ridiculous. We had to fudge her assignments so she could get credit for the internship.
These days I’m unlikely to take on an intern mostly because of the time commitment. Since I’d only be training a pattern maker or sample maker, they’d need a lot of one on one training for a period of time before I could realize a return on my investment. Most internships are too short for that. Now, I would consider taking on someone as an employee provided I felt they could commit to working for me for a period of time. Another thing is they’d have to be bringing something else to the table, preferably skills I don’t have. If someone were good at organizing and administrative functions with a good head on their shoulders, they’d be immensely valuable to me (hint: the apartment behind my shop is available for lease). Personally, I wouldn’t mind having someone around but I don’t plan on staying in this area so I’m treading water for now. As it is, in spite of mentoring and interning being a mixed bag for me, one of the things I’ve wanted to do for a long time is to set up a training facility. I envision a small contract sewing operation in which I’d bring in people to learn how to do sewing and patterns while providing contract sewing services too. For this sort of training, there would have to be fees levied to pay for it. Now, once someone had the skills, they could be paid for work rendered on site but I wouldn’t be willing to train a person if I knew at the outset that their goal was to set up their own operation because they won’t be around long enough for me to get my training investment back.
I got off tangent here, sorry. Continuing with the conversation with Christina, she responds:
And I shouldn’t have mentioned “mentor” and “internship” in the same paragraph, b/c with mentorship, what I meant is whether you know people who volunteer time or do paid consulting in helping people jump-start their business, and following them through the process as an adviser. So no internship in this sense, but having an older (assuming), wiser guide. Do you know actual people or organizations who make it a calling to do something like this? — I mean, *you* do, but I’m looking for someone in Portland, Oregon, proper.
Does anyone know of anyone in the area? I know that several regular visitors are up in that area, sing out if you know of anything that Christina is describing. For advising and consulting with you one on one, you’ll have to pay someone. I can’t see anyone doing that for nothing -outside of the SBA and SCORE and they may not have skills available to match your interests. Christina continues:
Also, as for intern vs. employee, ack, don’t tell me that! — I was hoping that the appeal of paying me less and treating me badly would work in my favor! I read that some businesses don’t mind having interns b/c even though, yes, they could leave, the internships can be advertised as an “intern-to-hire”, where they’re cost-effective and still have incentives to work as hard as an employee, b/c of the possibility of being hired (and wanting to work there, if that’s part of why they applied, vs. mere experience–although, the intern might change his/her mind if they liked the place enough). So, once hired, the newly hires wouldn’t need that much training, b/c it already happened during the internship, and there’s more leverage in molding the person in the internship with the company culture and work ethic vs. as an employee.
I think this is more of an option if applying to larger companies. While there’s a lot to learn there, there’s also a lot you shouldn’t learn there. Considering your goals, I think it’s more helpful to work with a smaller company where operations are more transparent and overlapping. Then again, many small companies have bad habits you shouldn’t be learning either. The problem is, smaller companies may not have the wherewithal to hire you or have you intern with them unless you’re bringing another needed skill they currently lack. Also, I don’t think it’s likely they’ll want to have you intern with them if your purpose is to go out and start your own enterprise, particularly if you plan to compete in their market. I know I’d be hiding my Rolodex from you :).
[snipped] As for myself, I *would* be an intern just for the experience, although it would be cool to be hired afterwards, b/c then I wouldn’t have to work a non-related job (most likely) *plus* added hours of internship. I intend to do the internship for the long haul though, at least six months, so to me I would take that as seriously as a higher-paying job.
As I said above, I’d be more inclined to take someone on if they planned to stay on, otherwise it’s not worth my while to train them. It sounds to me that you’re of two minds. It seems you’re looking for an opportunity as a way of getting your foot in the door to a long term position or that you want to run your own company. If you’re not sure of your own goals, you can’t be honest. Most of the people who approach me want experience and training so that they can then go out and start their own enterprises. If you want to intern because your goal is to get a full time position, then I’d definitely see about just getting a job rather than offering to intern. Still, what you’ve said above isn’t what you were saying when you first wrote. You said you were looking for a position so you could learn to run your own company. There’s no crime in wanting to learn that but know yourself well enough with respect to your goals that you can be honest. Don’t get hired someplace under the pretext of wanting a career there if you really plan to be self employed and are just using the job for your own devices unless you put in enough time with that company -a couple of years at least- and provide them with a solid return for having invested in you. Don’t forget that previous employers can also color the potential viability of your enterprise when you leave, particularly if you plan to enter the same end of the market. Christina continues:
Heck, I would volunteer if I could, if there was such a thing for businesses! I really wouldn’t mind working for free for the experience, it’s not like I need the designation “intern” for college credit, I really want to learn. Plus I feel like I don’t have enough experience to become an employee, based on casual searches for fashion jobs, so I concluded that I can only get my foot in the door by being an intern. I could go to fashion school and then apply, but I really think I would benefit a lot more from firsthand, real-world practical experience, b/c I’m an independent learner.
I’d say to just go for a job, if you’re that much of a go-getter, you can’t lose. I knew this girl once. She was young (18!), no experience, no background, no design school who applied as a design assistant at this place I worked. You can imagine they laughed her out of the room. She had the nerve to come back a month later, they wouldn’t even see her. She came back again, weaseled her way into an interview, they didn’t hire her. She kept coming back, over and over again I don’t know how many times. Finally, they just got tired of saying no. Persistence is a large part of this job and they figured she at least had that. She ended up working out really well. Not to say we didn’t have issues with her from time to time but all in all, it was a good experience for all of us. I don’t regret it in the slightest, I learned a lot from her too and am glad to have known her. Maybe you’d be like her. There’s always room for somebody who is dog-determined, tenacious and willing to work hard.