The All Around Intern

The new breed: not just for filing, not just for summer

Quick, think "Intern." If what comes to mind is a coffee-go-fer, an unpaid file clerk, or a human answering machine, you haven't met the likes of Matt Johnson, a 21-year-old student at Boise State University. Johnson had only just completed his sophomore year when he did a summer internship at e-Netigrations, a 12-employee software company in Boise, Idaho. First, he wrote a marketing plan. It turned out so well that the company offered Johnson a part-time job in his junior year, during which he finished writing a private-placement memorandum he'd started during the summer--a prospectus-like document that will be given to potential investors. "We put this document in front of people who want to give us $6 million. We couldn't have paid people to do it better," says Jeanine Ward, Johnson's supervisor. "We love Matt, and he's never allowed to go away."

Yes, interns are popular these days. As unemployment continues to hover at around 4%, small companies are putting students to work in areas as specialized as marketing, finance, and computer programming. "The old view of interns was that they did grunt work," says Bob Longo, CEO of Pittsburgh (Penn.)-based software company Carnegie Learning. Not so at Longo's 62-person company, which hosted about two dozen interns this summer. Carnegie Learning, which makes math software for kids, uses the interns for product development and testing--and actually waits to do it in the summer months when the greatest number of interns is available. But increasingly, Longo can find interns during the school year, too. This fall, Carnegie is hosting six of them. "Everybody gets a big kick out of having them around," says Longo. "They bring a fairly upbeat feeling, and it's kind of a letdown when they leave." Longo treats his interns like regular employees, and, indeed, it's often hard to tell them apart. They all have job titles and aren't much younger than many of the full-timers. Only difference: When the interns come along on business lunches, Longo is more likely to head for Dave & Busters, an old steel mill renovated into a video arcade and restaurant, rather than the more staid Dusquesne Club.


Why would a small business rely so heavily on interns? "They can do some serious projects that you don't have the bandwidth to do," says Longo. And that's a great reason for signing up at your local college or VoTech program this fall, when students will already be scoping out internships for the spring semester. But be forewarned, the labor squeeze is also putting pressure on the intern market, particularly for those with technical skills, says Donna Sizemore Hale, executive director of the National Society for Experiential Education. Boston College's internship co-coordinator, Amy Donegan, reports that during the first three weeks of August alone she received about 500 requests for interns--up about 50% from three years ago.

Colleges are trying to keep up with the surge in interest. In 1975, only 26% of colleges offered internships or other work experience as part of their academic curriculum. By 1997, says the National Association of Colleges & Employers, 73% of colleges did. By 2000, 78% were offering some sort of experiential education, aiming to give students relevant skills they can use to land their first full-time job.

People skills, for instance. One college placement officer tells of an intern who noticed her employer was short on cash while about $18,000 in unpaid receivables piled up. Unfortunately, she scolded her employer about the cash-flow situation in front of other employees, embarrassing the boss--and getting herself fired. Her criticisms, however, did not go unheeded. The company, which later reinstated the intern at the request of the college, has since improved its bill collection system.

When an internship is successful, you just might get first dibs on a tried-and-tested new employee--assuming you can afford to pay the salary. When Laurel Marsh, now 26, finished a summer internship five years ago with Atlanta-based interior-design firm Beeson Lyles, owner Valerie Lyles was loath to lose Marsh's computer-assisted-design skills. But Lyles says she didn't need Marsh full time. So Lyles came up with a unique solution. She joined with three other design firms to encourage Marsh to start her own business and to work for them on a contract basis. "In school, you don't get exposure to the business side," says Marsh. "I really wanted to work in a smaller company where I wasn't pigeonholed."

Nevertheless, it's still hard for many small businesses, particularly in the summer, to compete against prestige internships with big accounting firms, or say, with the Late Show with David Letterman. The odds get much better during the school year, say program coordinators, when students are more concerned about getting a meaningful educational experience and less worried about salary.

For some skills, you can expect to pay dearly. Computer-science students can command as much as 75% of a full-time employee's salary during an internship (Page F.42). And if you do pay anything, you will have to offer minimum wage. Some companies get around this quite legally--and avoid the hassle of adding an intern to the payroll--by paying a bonus when the internship ends.

Besides money, there's more to building a successful internship program than grabbing a student and showing them a desk. You'll need to structure a meaningful plan that both students and schools can relate to. Here's how to get started:

Check Your Resources. Take an informal workplace inventory before you even think about hiring an intern. Do you even have a spare desk? What about a phone and Web access? "You'd be surprised how many people don't think of these things," says the NSEE's Hale. Also ask yourself if anyone has time to show the intern the ropes. What projects do you have for them to work on?

Learn School Rules. Start with the internship coordinator at the school's career service center. Expect to fill out paperwork detailing the skills you need and the educational experience you're offering. If you get an intern, be prepared to complete mid- and end-of-semester evaluations.

Colleges look for companies that will mentor students. So play up your virtues as a small company, stressing that interns will have access to top management. Colleges also like to see that an intern will be put to work on a specific project, not relegated to clerical tasks.

Recruit Widely. Even if you're looking for a particular aptitude, cast a wide net. "Don't say `finance majors.' Say, `people with an interest in learning about finance,"' counsels Boston College's Donegan. "A lot of our English majors could probably do that internship."

To find candidates and make your internship offer stand out from the crowd, get ready to schmooze your heart out. Carnegie Learning's Longo has found most of his interns through word of mouth. For ten years, he has served on the executive advisory board of Duquesne University, where some of his first interns came from. Similarly, his employees have worked their alumni connections to bring in more interns.

If your network isn't as well developed as Longo's, offer to host an information session on campus. Some schools sponsor an internship fair, usually free to employers. You also can advertise in the school newspaper, giving students plenty of advance notice. Contact deans and professors in departments that train students in the skills that you're seeking.

While most interns are undergrads, don't rule out recruiting at vocational schools, MBA programs, and even some high schools. (Big-city school systems may include schools in the City-As-School network that focus on work experience.) Bear in mind that using high-school students requires extra planning. For instance, if you dismiss high school students early in the day and they head home, they will be considered truant if school is still in session.

Protect Yourself. Workplace injuries happen. So put your interns on your workers' comp policy. Also important: Let your employees know that the same workplace policies prohibiting sexual harassment and discrimination against employees apply to interns, too.

Remember, They're Young. Your interns may not have had much work experience, so be sure to give them a quick tour of the basics--work hours, lunchtime protocol, and standards of dress. Set them up with a well-defined project, and put the job description in writing. By clarifying everyone's expectations, you will have given the intern a sense of accomplishment by the time they leave your company. And make sure there's more than one project to work on to avoid down time and floundering. Interns, says Paul Magelli, director of the University of Illinois' Office for the Study of Business Issues, "want the hands-on, grassroots, exhilarating, and painful experience of really building a company." As a small business, you can certainly offer plenty of that.