The shortage of tech workers means that hiring a new IT staff member is difficult. The economic outlook and the shrinking budget you are facing mean that hiring a new IT staff member is out of the question. This might be the right time to consider “hiring” college interns.

I am a big supporter of utilizing college interns. Since I work in a small IT department for a county office, budget and staffing constraints mean that “free” or low-cost workers are welcomed. Interns can help you complete special projects and also give you a chance to preview potential hires. In this article, I’ll explain the issues to consider when selecting college interns to work in your IT department.

Select interns as if you are selecting a new employee
Some IT managers might rush into the chance to bring in free, or nearly free, help since the student may be working either without pay or at a lower rate than full-time employees. But I have found that selecting interns requires that I use the same skills that I would use to hire full-time employees.

A local community college contacted me recently about working with a few computer information technology (CIS) college students as part of an internship program. One of the CIS students was working on her CIS degree with an emphasis as a Webmaster. The other student was studying for his degree with an emphasis in LAN administration.

I agreed to host the CIS student emphasizing her degree as a Webmaster because I needed someone who could analyze our Web site, look into speeding up download time, and research various types of Web management software that would give us specific statistical information on the performance of our Web site—among other tasks.

I decided not to host the student who was emphasizing LAN administration because this student would only be around for a college semester, which is about three months. I didn’t want to deal with the security issues that would have been involved.

During the selection process, the interview will allow you to eliminate candidates who may require too much of your time for training. Again, these same rules apply to hiring any employee. The exception is that you need to be even more willing and prepared to devote time to training the intern on office procedures and the specifics of the project you expect them to accomplish. You should remember that, while the intern is there to help, these students also expect to receive hands-on IT experience.

Some interns, while earning little or no salary, may also carry hidden costs, including the time you need to spend training them. This hidden cost can be extremely expensive if your intern is not a self-starter who is willing to tackle problems on his or her own. While the interview process will help you screen the best candidates, the college you are working with should have a system in place that helps prescreen candidates as well.

Length of the program
For students to be considered for an internship, they must either be in their last semester of college or three-quarters of the way through their degree program.

If you would like to work with a local college, consider selecting a college that requires students to complete much of their coursework before they can work as an intern. In addition, I would recommend selecting a college that offers two different internship timetables.

The college I work with offers two programs for college interns: a long-term program and a short-term program.

Long-term program

  • The employer hires the student with pay. But the hourly wage is much less than what a typical IT worker would earn.
  • The employer is required to pay for workers’ compensation benefits.

I don’t have the budget to pay an intern. However, I believe this type of program usually works best for the employer if they can afford it.

The long-term program works great for employers who are looking for a full-time employee but are not in a hurry to hire someone immediately. Long-term internships are a great opportunity to find out about students’ work habits, knowledge, and personality. Do they get along with the rest of the team? Or are they a less-than-perfect fit? This type of internship also allows the employer a chance to teach interns how to perform a specific job. If they are hired full time, they will have the confidence and familiarity to hit the ground running.

Short-term program

  • The intern does not earn money.
  • This is a college course where the student is working for college credit. As a result, the employer is not responsible for workers’ compensation. (As I mentioned earlier, the descriptions I’ve provided about long- and short-term programs pertain to the college I work with. You should ask about workers’ comp and other issues during discussions with colleges in your area.)

Although you don’t pay interns any money, the learning experience is valuable and gives students a chance to begin building a resume.

The short-term internship is great for accomplishing small projects that should last two months or less. I have found that I need to give interns two to four weeks to get adjusted to the work environment.

Interns offer a way to recruit new talent
Remember that interns are working for you as a way to get some hands-on experience, so you’ll want to make the experience valuable for them. Assigning them to type your memos and straighten out your filing system should not be their primary role. If you need interns to perform some administrative tasks, be clear during the interview about what they should expect so that they aren’t disappointed later.

Creating a meaningful internship program might turn into an effective recruiting tool. The student may be an excellent candidate for a position that you might want to fill in the near future. This is a great opportunity to find out about the student’s work ethic and skill set.

There’s also a long-term benefit that you might not have realized. Once the student leaves your department and begins full-time work in a specialized area, this new IT professional may become a valuable colleague. If you are like me, you don’t have a lot of money for professional contractors. When I have a question or two about programming, networking, or databases, I just send out an e-mail to all my contacts, and I usually get a reply within a couple of days.
Mark is planning to have an intern research changes to the organization’s Web site. What projects would you trust to an intern? Post a comment or send us a letter.