Managing the computer science internship program is one of my duties as a college professor, and the following statements and questions regularly come my way:
I’m guessing most employers looking for talent can relate because they are noticing a trend: The demand for software engineers is outpacing what colleges and technical schools are producing. In this article, I discuss why you should care and steps you can take to attract new talent through internships.
Why You Should Care
There are three reasons you should care. First, there is competition for talent. Second, interns can produce value. Third, you are building goodwill with the community in general.
There is stiff competition for new software engineers, database administrators, systems analysts, and other information technology trades. The Bureau of Labor and Standards reports that these fields will grow significantly, from 28 to 30 percent.
Disturbing trends in education since 2004—such as a period of decreased enrollments in four-year computer science and information systems programs—exacerbate this. Further, computer science is the degree among the science and technology disciplines that is most likely to see first-year students drop that major for another. Couple this with the long period of the No Child Left Behind law, which discouraged elementary and secondary schools from exploring computing , and you quickly realize that the talent pipeline will be limited in the next few years.
Granted, enrollment in computing courses is starting to turn around, and President Obama has supported more funding for science, technology, engineering, and math curriculums, but the bottom line is that the supply of software engineers is not growing at a pace to keep up with market demand. Your company can mitigate the risk of this upcoming shortage by establishing an internship program.
I have coordinated internships for eight years. The vast majority of the requests I receive for interns are motivated by the need for labor. In other words, employers recognize that internships make a contribution to the bottom line.
Recruiting, whether for experienced craftspeople or entry level, is difficult and expensive. It is particularly painful if a new hire goes sour for any number of reasons. However, I have known several companies that have used their internship programs as successful vehicles for recruitment. These employers have had the opportunity to observe their interns’ potential for ten weeks or more in many cases. Of course, the intern might turn down an offer, but the intern has also had time to determine if the company is a good fit. If there is a match, it is usually a solid one.
Finally, you are making a significant contribution to the professional and academic communities. Schools recognize and appreciate the staff time and fiscal resources that organizations direct to hosting interns. There is no doubt that an internship on a résumé benefits a graduating student and also keeps schools in touch with the needs of industry.
There are also some residual benefits to providing internships. Students remember positive experiences and become walking, talking future advertisements for you.
Elements of a Good Internship Program
I advise interns to look at companies that have an obvious commitment to meaningful internships. When an employer calls and asks how to get a foot in the door, my advice reflects much of what I tell the students.
Generally, red flags go up when I hear someone only say that interns will have complete freedom in their jobs. The most disconcerting internship offers couple that freedom with opportunities where the interns “will probably know more about it than us.”
Responsibility is encouraged, but the point to internships is to provide a growth opportunity for students by giving them exposure to a real-world environment. That opportunity should include a mentor who will ensure an appropriate balance of challenging work with guidance and honest feedback. Generally, the mentor fills the supervisory role. The efforts that would be made to quickly integrate a new employee into the company apply here as well. The reporting relationship should be obvious within the internship.
At the start of the internship, the mentor and intern should have a frank discussion about the goals of the internship that serves the interests of both. When I first started coordinating the internship program, I was surprised by the frequency of companies that did not have a specific purpose in mind for the internship. Although such incidents were well intentioned, both the organization and the intern found few rewards from the experience in the end.
In their journals, my interns must describe the mission of the organization and then explain how their responsibilities support that mission. I encourage mentors to consider this as a starting point as well. If the interns’ duties directly support the purpose of the organization, that generally gives them a sense of belonging.
In other words, don’t hire an intern to make the coffee and just look over people’s shoulders.
Tough and fair interviews
Transcripts alone don’t tell you the story. The internship interview sets the tone of expectation at the very beginning. Companies enjoying success usually put the internship candidates through the same process as other employment candidates.
I have noticed a direct correlation between intern and company satisfaction in companies where interns receive challenging interviews that include some form of problem solving. These include being required to write small snippets of code and addressing no-win project management scenarios, mostly to gain an understanding of the intern’s thought process. This outcome sets an expectation for all involved.
On the other hand, don’t expect a polished presence in the initial interview. Keep in mind that many computer science students do not have the same personality traits as outgoing sales people. While an academic advisor may provide résumé, appearance, and other preparation assistance, part of the internship’s goal is to learn those subtle day-to-day soft skills in the office environment. Again, this is where mentor feedback becomes important.
Fairness in compensation
Don’t fool yourself into believing that the mere opportunity to gain exposure to your company’s competitive secrets attracts interns. Interns pay bills like anyone else.
Yes, interns desire meaningful work, but fairness in compensation is also a factor. Certainly, "fairness" is a relative term. For instance, some interns gain a sense of satisfaction by meaningful volunteer work at nonprofits. However, the bulk of internships are at commercial enterprises, and hourly wages average $15 per hour. Many interns realize that the experience is the primary benefit, but this figure should indicate how other employers are competing for this limited pool of talent.
I encourage employers to include a discussion about pay in the hiring process. Learning how to negotiate is a critical skill for interns. Generally speaking, I don’t interfere with that process. But, if I think someone is taking advantage of a talented young person, I will let that intern know. I have to believe that many internship coordinators do the same.
Nurture Relationships with Schools
So, how do you get an inside track into the pipeline of talent? Quite simply, contact the schools to let them know of your opportunities. Also, don’t think that you can’t compete with larger companies that have national or international name recognition. Personal relationships with schools will encourage students to look at your company. Let schools know that you would be interested in being a guest speaker for classes or colloquium series. Take time to inquire about schools’ technical career fairs.
I mentioned that there is a gap between the demand and supply of technical talent. Part of this is due to a lack of interest among students in elementary and secondary education. Several colleges are now offering after-hours programs to introduce these young people to computing. Volunteers are needed to help with these programs, and your support will be remembered.
Finally, to broaden your appeal, you should also consider membership with the National Association of Colleges and Employers.
I started this article with a series of quoted questions or inquiries I often receive. A few employers wonder if I am hiding the interns or holding back. I tell them the same thing I have written in this article: There are more internships than interns. Given that fact, a thoughtful, long-term approach to an internship program will make the difference.