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A Foot in the Door – The Value of Internships

Experience required. Many jobs require wide-ranging qualifications and expertise to be able to apply and interview. However, people often ask, “How can I get the experience if I cannot get a job?” A great way to get “a foot in the door” is through internships, which can be vital in the emergency management field. Multifaceted and sometimes fast-paced, this is the type of profession where one must have the drive and passion for helping others and serving the community. Despite some public misconceptions that emergency management is only active during an event (which is often the only time an agency receives media attention), it is a 24-hour-a-day, 7-days-a-week, 365-days-a-year profession. Therefore, exposure to what happens in the field on “blue sky days” and during an emergency or disaster is paramount for someone new to the profession to experience. 

An internship can expose someone to all phases of emergency management, effectively showing their strengths and weaknesses. For instance, after providing training, some may realize that public speaking is not for them. If that is the case, they can try other roles within the profession that better suit their needs and personalities. It is essential for this type of profession to learn how an agency or organization operates and how a community responds during a critical event. During an event, one can see the systems and methods used to accomplish a mission. One can also see how each agency integrates behind the scenes in the emergency operations center. Many emergency management professionals enter the field after witnessing or participating in an actual event, such as Hurricane Katrina or the terrorist attacks of 9/11.  

Advantages of an Internship 

Paid or unpaid, there are many advantages to participating in an internship. According to a 2020 article by Indeed, benefits include but are not limited to job experience, research experience, exposure to various tasks and departments, mentorship, building a resume, building confidence, and transitioning to a permanent job. Specifically, in emergency management, having different tasks and working with other units can help people develop the skills needed to manage the many functions that emergency managers perform. As noted in the article, some internships can also become full-time positions. In a recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), 66.4% of eligible interns received full-time positions after the program ended in 2020. Whereas, in 2019 only 43.7% of students got a job offer without completing an internship program according to CompareCamp

Challenges of an Internships During a Global Pandemic Response 

No internship is perfect, and there will be some limitations and challenges and the past two years were no exception. The COVID-19 pandemic shattered the job market and forced many companies to work remotely. Due to the hands-on nature of internships, COVID-19 impacted the effectiveness of a program once it went virtual. In the same study mentioned above by the NACE, in 2020, 72% of summer internships were virtual, and the quality of interactions and networking with the interns were hindered. A study by the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions (CCWT) found that, in 2021, only 22% of students participated in an internship, and one in five students split time between in-person and online positions. 

The value of internships and fellowships is immeasurable when considering the amount of experience gained while employed.

Another challenge caused by the pandemic is that internships became very competitive due to virtual or shortened time frames. In an article by CNBC, the author noted that a student who applied for a couple of internships never received a reply from the employer or heard they had canceled the program. As a result, internships became competitive because the number of applicants outpaced the availability of programs. In addition to being competitive, one student found it difficult to stay motivated to apply for internships due to companies’ lack of responses.  

Below is a specific example of how COVID affected the networking process. Andrew Wasserman participated in New York City’s (NYC) John D. Solomon Fellowship for Public Service in 2020. He noted during a personal interview on 11 March 2022 that, although his placement with NYC Department of Environmental Protection was in-person, he found it difficult to meet and network with the other Solomon fellows who were part of his cohort. In addition, Wasserman mentioned the fellowship did not host events like they had in previous years such as the Solomon Family Dinner event, where members of the current fellowship class can meet and connect with any alumni and mentors who participated in the fellowship in previous years. 

Wasserman wished networking with others happened in a more organic way rather than over Zoom and social media. He felt that he would have been able to interact with fellow participants more effectively if the program was fully in-person. Although he experienced some challenges, Wasserman noted he had a very positive experience during his time with the fellowship and he was able to perform tasks in the field. In addition, he was hired by New York City Emergency Management a few months after his fellowship ended.   

Best Practices for Interns 

The value of internships and fellowships is immeasurable when considering the amount of experience gained while employed. Another significant factor in emergency management is networking and building relationships. A 2018 case study about internships notes that relationships can open doors to other internships and employment opportunities. For example, if a position is not available after completing the internship, the intern’s advisor may know if another agency or organization has open positions. Additionally, people who decide to opt into different career paths, an internship can confirm whether or not they are passionate about the field they are interning for. 

Other best practices for interns according to Columbia University’s Center for Career Education include but are not limited to: 

  • Meet coworkers – By trying to meet each person, the intern can continuously build relationships during the program. Coworkers can also be valuable resources when the advisor is not available to answer questions.  

    • As companies decide to keep a remote schedule or a hybrid schedule, it may seem difficult to meet coworkers. One suggestion is to reach out to one person who said something interesting at a meeting and ask them to meet one-on-one to discuss the topic in more detail. Another suggestion is to ask for a mentor for the duration of the program to assist in any issues that may arise. This also provides valuable network building opportunities.  
  • Set goals – Setting goals helps set expectations for the intern and the advisor. 

  • Watch and learn – Being observant can provide an understanding of the organization’s culture and the people. It is also essential to ask questions as they arise, which demonstrates a willingness to learn. 

  • Be professional – It is imperative that interns present themselves professionally each day to show they are serious about working there. 

  • Develop time management – Time management of projects and keeping track of deadlines are critical skills that some people struggle with, but they are essential for staying organized. 

With these tips in mind, an intern will have the best possible internship experience.

Not Just for Students 

Internships are not and should not be exclusively available to students. They should be open to working professionals looking for career changes or expanding their skill sets. For instance, if a member of the American Red Cross’s (ARC) Disaster Action Team (DAT) who has responded in the field wants to learn what happens behind the scenes, an intern program can provide some experience with interagency coordination. Another example in which internships can benefit working professionals is if they were, unfortunately, let go. Looking for another job can often be a daunting and challenging task. An internship may be the best way to ease back into the job market and make new connections. 

Even if a person has some emergency management experience, there are other aspects of the profession that can be explored and shown differently through internships. In addition, the daily interactions with different disciplines may introduce other interdisciplinary areas to explore, such as healthcare emergency management. For emergency management to grow, there must be a way to increase the availability and visibility of internships and fellowships. By opening internships to all interested in new opportunities and not limiting them to students in undergraduate or graduate programs, the field can continue to evolve and grow. 

Sambavi Jani

Sambavi “Sam” Jani is an emergency management specialist with the New Jersey Department of Children and Families, Office of Emergency Management. Her emergency management career spans government entities and the private sector. She began her career with Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Since then, she has had the opportunity to work at the state and local levels in planning and responding to various events. She has found her passion lies with the importance of preparedness, training, and exercises. She participated in NYC’s John D. Solomon Fellowship for Public Service. She holds a Masters in Professional Studies in Emergency & Disaster Management from Georgetown University. She is also a member of International Association of Emergency Managers (IAEM) Region 2 and has earned the designation of a Certified Emergency Manager.



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