Enough new hires were coming out of college educated but lacking life experience that one company offered an "unternship“ — the opportunity to get that experience on the company's dime.
Just outside my cubicle lies the Pit of Atrociousness. It’s a cavernous chasm into which I toss the inane press releases and insipid workplace-related books that cross my desk each day.
Some have called it “dangerous” — a couple of colleagues fell in recently (R.I.P., Steve and Marsha), even though the Pit of Atrociousness is very clearly marked — but I find it a reasonable place to dispose of things like “HOT TIPS TO CATAPULT YOU INTO THE PROFESSIONAL POWER-SPHERE” and “Success Through Sobbing.”
Usually any book or PR pitch that highlights a made-up word — like “performazing” or “retentionization” — is instant pit fodder. I recently spotted the word “unternship” on a release and was about to cast it away with an Olympic-caliber eye roll when I spotted a paragraph that made me pause.
It described a company’s untern who “did a Cherokee sweat lodge ritual in Georgia, ran a Tough Mudder race in Washington, D.C., lived with an Amish community in Ohio, hiked down the Grand Canyon in 120-degree weather, experienced a 10-day silent retreat near Fresno, snorkeled with sea turtles in Hawaii, built houses for the homeless in New Orleans, and is now in Atlanta doing community service.”
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And I thought, “OK, what’s all this untern business about?”
It turns out that Golin, a Chicago-based communications firm, has come up with an inventive, and I’d add admirable, idea to promote the simple fact that experiences gained outside the workplace have significant value in the workplace.
Golin CEO Fred Cook said he wanted to “give people a chance to go out and get some life experience before they start working.”
“So many people coming out of college, they do an internship every summer then move immediately into the workforce when they graduate,” Cook said. “They’re very educated, but they come to us with very little life experience. So we wanted to create an opportunity for individuals to get that experience on our dime and then bring that back to work in terms of fresh ideas and new perspectives.”
And so the unternship was born. (Had they called it a “coolternship” or “radternship,” this story would be at the bottom of the Pit of Atrociousness.)
The lucky “untern”
The company took applications and, through an almost reality show-like competition, wound up hiring Akinbola Richardson, a 22-year-old Howard University graduate.
His first three months on the job would be spent outside the office, traveling from place to place across the country, meeting people, experiencing things and blogging about it all for the company’s website. And travel he did.
“Me going out there, meeting all these different people, traveling alone, it has really made me more confident,” Richardson said. “Even my persuasive skills and creativity have improved. Being in different cultures, going out and getting a sense of the world. It gives you a sense of boldness and creativity, and it makes you grow as a person.”
As Cook alluded, young people tend to enter the workforce book-smart but unworldly. The lessons learned even in a short period of time outside the relatively protective cocoon of college are crucial.
I asked Richardson about some of the more important ways in which he had grown, and the first thing he mentioned was quite simple: “Just day-to-day things like making sure I had all my stuff together as far as traveling. I had to be really safe and cautious that I’m getting to the airport on time. You have to be on point with all that stuff. There was no one to catch me but me. I had never been this organized in my life, ever. Doing that for a few months, I got really good at it.”
That alone gives Richardson a leg up over many new hires. But he grew in other ways as well.
“Staying in hostels with people of different ages and from different countries, I learned how to break down barriers really quickly with people, no matter the age or the race,” he said. “I found out how to become a really good people person, a really good talker.”
The bottom line is this: Richardson will walk into Golin’s Dallas office soon and begin his career with greater confidence, organizational skills and communication experience than most his age.
Appealing to millennials
And that’s a boon to the company, not just because it’s getting one intern with cool life experiences, but because it’s sending a message to other employees — and other potential job candidates — that Golin values diverse experiences and isn’t afraid to try new things.
“The program makes everyone feel like they’re working at a company that’s interested in creativity and bravery,” Cook said. “We also spoke about this a lot on college campuses, and it created a tremendous boost to our employer brand among millennials.”
Along with expanding the unternship program to other company offices around the globe, Cook said Golin is also giving employees opportunities to take a day, and in some cases a week, to “go out and do something they’ve always wanted to do.”
It could be taking a trapeze class or riding around with a police officer. Anything that gives the worker a new experience.
Plenty of companies make clumsy attempts at being edgy, but Golin’s unternship concept is a well thought out way to be different, rooted in the very practical concept that we’re better at working if we’ve lived a little.
There’s nothing atrocious about that.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.