The Not-So-Hidden Value of IT Interns

Thursday Feb 17th 2005 by Eric Spiegel
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A professional sports team uses the college draft to fill immediate needs and build for the future. Likewise, an intern program gives IT shops a glimpse of what future college grads have to offer.

"Interns? We don't have time for interns!"

That was the terse response I received from our VP of engineering when I proposed we bring on a few interns to fill some immediate needs. Although I could understand his response based on the immense impending workload, I also knew from past experience that an internship program not only can help alleviate the work burden, it can plant the seeds to sow future leaders for an organization.

To demonstrate the value of interns, let's look at professional sports. A pro sports team uses the draft to fill immediate needs and build for the future. This is comparable to businesses hiring college graduates.

Now imagine if a football team could have college players intern with them for a year before deciding to offer a long-term contract. Not only would it increase a team's chances of hiring the right players, those receiving contracts would hit the ground running because they'd be familiar with the plays and their teammates.

In my experience, I have found this "try and buy" approach translates well in the business world. For IT shops, an intern program provides an extended, hands-on evaluation of what future college grads have to offer.

So where does one find good interns? The best place to start is at nearby universities. Unless you only want a summer intern, it is important to select a local university so the interns can attend classes and work part-time. Contact the career service centers and ask for a meeting. Be prepared to discuss the skills you need, so they can match students with an appropriate major.

Go the the Talent Source

According to Patricia Hilliard, a technology career counselor with the University of Pittsburgh, it can be as easy as establishing an account on the university's online career service.

"A company can use their account to search for potential intern resumes and contact that intern directly if interested," she says. However, Hilliard also suggests building a working relationship with either a faculty member or someone in career services. "We can help the companies find the best match for their ongoing needs," she says.

In preparing for your intern, you need to clearly define the job responsibilities. If an intern is working for credits, it is even more important because they will need pre-approval from their sponsoring faculty member in order to qualify for the credits.

"We have had employers assign computer science majors clerical work, which provides no value to either the intern or company," says Hilliard.

In other words, for those of you looking for cheap labor, go to a temp agency.

Hilliard says your best bet is to assign a project with a clear beginning, middle and end.

"It will be a better experience for all parties if an intern has a project they can get their arms around," she says.

Some projects that may ease the transition of an intern include quality assurance and documentation. By testing and documenting your applications they will gain the knowledge needed to be assigned future design or development work. If you do assign a development project, make sure it is well-defined and that the intern understands your methodology and standards.

Also keep in mind that this is most likely an intern's first "real world" job experience. Hilliard suggests having monthly meetings to gauge progress and provide guidance.

"Do not wait until the end of the internship to provide feedback," she advises. "This is a learning experience for the intern and they need direction throughout the project."

Now wait a minute...this sounds like extra work! Perhaps you are now thinking the VP of engineering was on the right track. While it is true that interns do take some extra effort, with minimal preparation and monitoring you will quickly realize their added short- and long-term value.

First and foremost, you will be filling a need with an affordable, eager resource. You will not have to hire a full-time employee or a more expensive contractor for a short-term project.

If your intern has a positive experience, they can become a goodwill ambassador at their university. This is equivalent to free recruiting advertising dollars. The buzz on campus will attract the best candidates for future open positions.

My favorite statistic shows how interns are like making a long-term investment. This is because once interns are in the door, they are more likely to stay for the long haul. According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, more than 80 percent of the employers who responded to the association's 2004 survey said they see higher retention rates among employees who previously interned at the company.

'How's That Homework Coming Along?'

So you see, this just might be a good idea after all. But there are still some measures you should take to make sure the intern has a valuable experience and will want to return as an employee if asked.

Always remember that interns are students and their studies are a top priority. This is especially true for interns working during a semester and not over the summer. Allow for flexible work hours based on their course schedule. Perhaps you can even find a project that enables them to work in the evening hours or on weekends.

During a semester, be prepared to limit their weekly hours to 15 or 20 tops. It never hurts to ask the intern how their studies are coming along and encourage them to ask you for help.

If you have the need, give strong consideration to hiring multiple interns. Hilliard says it helps if they have peers they can share their experience with.

"It is good for them to have relatable peers that aren't their parent's age who can share their struggles and successes," says Hilliard. "And it never hurts to create a little friendly competition."

Finally, if you have a large enough group of interns and recent college grads, it is also worthwhile to create social events such as ski trips or consider sponsoring a company softball team. These intangible benefits encourage interaction and team building; not to mention a darn good feeling that goes back to creating a positive buzz on campus.

A well-planned and executed intern program will make all that "extra" time and effort very much worth your while.

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