In the past, interns were lucky to have received a tiny stipend in exchange for their work, which was, more often than not, fetching coffee and running errands. But more and more internships these days—especially in IT—are paying decent salaries, and many are even offering perks like sign-on bonuses in addition to the chance of landing full-time employment.

The reason? An incredible economy with the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years has created a seller’s market. Employers can’t find enough qualified bodies, and they’re willing to pay decent dollars to find them.

Internship programs offer a great way for companies to attract and “audition” prospective employees. But with changing perceptions about pay and who is an appropriate internship candidate, companies need to reevaluate their programs’ benefits and broaden their scope to compete for solid internship prospects. And in this tight IT job market, the right intern could prove very useful in performing some of the job functions of a currently unfilled full-time position.

Help wanted
“Companies can’t fill tech positions fast enough,” observes Joan Stoia, director of the campus career network at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. “Employers have to stand on their heads to get these kids into paying internship programs.”

Stoia cites a recent study of job vacancy rates conducted by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Of 312 Massachusetts companies, the average vacancy rate at all firms was 11 percent. Consider these striking vacancy numbers among high-demand firms:

  • Computer scientists/programmers—15 percent
  • Web designers—25 percent
  • Software and telecommunications—8 percent
  • Computer manufacturing and telecommunication hardware and medical devices—7 percent

Bear in mind that vacancy rates vary all over the country. But virtually all cities with high-tech industries are feeling the pinch—all the more reason for companies to pay competitive internship salaries to attract solid candidates.

Show me the money
Margaret Roosevelt Haas, a spokesperson at the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration in Charlottesville, VA, said companies like AOL, CNET, Dell Computer, Diamond Technology Partners, EMC, Intel, Mainspring, Proxicom, and Viant are some of technology firms recruiting at the school. “The monthly median salary for high-tech and telecommunications jobs is $6,300.” The states paying the highest salaries, according to Computer, are California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, and Connecticut.

Most college graduates aiming for a career in IT are aware of the staff shortage and the money to be made in the industry, and most firms have learned that they must pay a competitive salary to lure interns into the corporate fold. For example, Teddi Roberts, currently a senior at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, was paid $19 an hour during her Hewlett-Packard internship. Her principal responsibility was developing an Intranet Web site. She’s already been offered $50,000 a year plus benefits for a full-time position at Agilent Technologies developing computer-based training and knowledge solutions. And Eyrique Miller, a 1998 graduate from Rutgers College of Engineering, received a scholarship and internship from the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME), sponsored by Lucent Technologies. The internship, which he filled during his sophomore year, paid $30,000 to $35,000 annually. When he graduated, he returned to a full-time job at Lucent that paid $45,000 to $55,000 a year.

The age factor
Despite the plentiful number of internships at technology companies, Stoia says that older students (35 to 50 years old) still have a harder time landing internships. Considering older candidates for internship positions requires a company to address stereotypes about older workers not being on top of technology trends and lacking the energy of their younger counterparts.

Stoia’s advice to older candidates: “Stress skills and accomplishments and highlight concrete examples. Avoid the age issue, which should not even be raised because this violates (U.S.) Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) laws. But older intern candidates can tactfully drive home that they bring additional skills that younger interns don’t have, such as maturity, flexibility, and experience.”
If your internship program has helped bring more solid IT employees to your company, tell us about it. Send us an e-mail that describes your experience or begin a discussion below. We’ll use your comments to develop future articles.