Internship programs are one of the most cost-effective ways of getting enthusiastic staff on board, particularly in a soft economy. Fortune 500 companies may spend up to three times as much per hire by recruiting through advertising and travelling to college campuses vs. recruiting interns, according to online career portal Vault Inc.
“It’s an easy way to test employees through a probationary period without having to make a commitment,” says Mark Oldham, Vault.com co-founder.
But don’t think internship programs are a way of getting inexpensive labour or getting minions to do the tasks that no one else wants to do. “Good companies don’t look at interns purely to get hands on deck. The best companies give supervised practical experiences,” Oldham says.
The City of Seattle’s IT Intern Work Study program is a good example of a well-thought-out initiative. Established in September 2000, the program has trained 10 interns so far, two of whom are now employed with the organization. The municipal government’s IT department has between 600 and 700 employees.
David Matthews, technology manager, and Barbara Hadley, administrative manager, launched the internship initiative, and systems manager Lindsey Johnstone runs it. He and Matthews get a lot of personal satisfaction out of the internship program. “Both David and I are frustrated teachers. We learn from the interns – it’s true that kids know all about computers,” Johnstone says.
Seattle ran an IT internship program about 15 years ago, but later dropped it after a reorganization. However, managers discovered that 35 per cent of the city’s IT decision-makers came through the former program, so they decided to resurrect it.
Interns gain exposure to various IT divisions, including network infrastructure, services, telecom and Web design. Performing technical support gives them experience troubleshooting problems and working with end users. Interns work at the city for about three months, but their contracts can be extended. Workweeks vary from a few hours per day to 20 hours per week, depending on scheduling needs.
Laurie Kraft is a program alumnus whose internship helped her land a job as a Web assistant at the municipal court. Kraft worked as an intern for the city from November 2000 to June 2001 while taking a Web development course at Seattle Central Community College.
“The internship was beneficial because I got different exposure to different divisions. I sat in on some meetings and managed to do some detailed work. It was an introduction to the business world,” Kraft says.
The stint let Kraft hone her Web development skills in an environment that was a world away from her previous career as a respiratory therapist. “I had come from a job that involved specific duties that don’t change much,” she says. “I wanted a faster-paced environment.”
So what should companies offer students in return? Internships are increasingly becoming paid positions, particularly in the high-tech sector, Vault.com’s Oldham says. It’s not unusual for companies to pay US$500 per week to attract good people.
Your local government office may offer financial assistance for internship programs. In Seattle’s case, the state of Washington offers a work-study program whereby the program’s sponsoring financial institutions pay 65 per cent of the intern’s salary. The employer pays the rest, and the rate for interns is around US$15.50 per hour.
Offering interns education and hands-on experience is also important and provides real-world examples of what they are studying – especially if what they read in books is hugely different than what happens in real life. Johnstone makes sure he spends 15 minutes with each intern explaining the concepts behind some of the tasks they carried out that day. “Kids know everything about workstations and desktop operating systems, but they don’t know what goes on behind the scenes,” he says.
Oldham encourages companies to set up meetings with executives and tours of major IT departments in the area. There should also be a mentoring program. At the City of Seattle, Johnstone and Matthews set aside two hours per week to sit with each intern to answer any questions. The students are appraised and are given exit interviews, which gives IT an opportunity to learn how it could improve the program.
“The set-up has to be balanced between tasks and educational. There needs to be an educational background – theory and hands-on,” Kraft recommends.
When you’re evaluating prospective interns, look for someone who’s eager to learn. “Interns need to be self-motivated. I have developed my troubleshooting skills and business process skills, which I have brought with me into my new position,” Kraft says.