Interns renew ranks of IT

Interns are becoming a necessity for many companies that are trying to find permanent, full-time technical pros amidst an IT skills shortage.

The interns at Cognos Inc. don't do much stapling or copying. They have more responsibility than that—such as tending to three-dimensional modeling applications, programming visualization software and troubleshooting client/server glitches.

Learning and working keep these mostly 20-somethings busy at the Ottawa-based business intelligence software developer. And the work is vital to Cognos, which relies on this transient work force to fill IT gaps and pollinate employees with fresh ideas.

Interns are becoming a necessity for many companies that are trying to find permanent, full-time technical pros amidst an IT skills shortage. Interns' skills can usually be had for a modest salary, a few benefits or some college credits.

"We make extensive use of interns [as many as 75 at a given time], typically in IT and R&D," said Robert Ashe, Cognos' senior vice president of worldwide customer services. At Cognos, the interns are the key to growing a solid employee base. "Our employees are our only resource," Ashe said. "We're used to putting money into them and training them." To that end, Cognos often caps an internship with the offer of a permanent job. Ashe, who started at Cognos as an intern in the accounting department, is proof of that.

Cognos' approach to filling IT jobs is different but not uncommon. Of the more than 400 employers who responded to a survey late last year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 82 percent offer at least one internship. And 98 percent of those offering internships use the programs to recruit full-time employees. But, warn industry observers, companies hiring interns must understand that the expectations of the Generation X population are much higher than those of baby boomers. These temps demand the same challenges and rewards given to full-time employees. If their needs are not met, they may leave for better opportunities.

Today, however, all companies must deal with high turnover. At Strata-G Communications, for instance, the typical tenure among the full-time employees in the Internet Group is a year, according to Jeff Eberlein, a managing partner at the Cincinnati marketing communications agency.

The company hopes that interns can help offset the turnover. Since many interns at Strata-G come from the University of Cincinnati, the internship program is a good way to build a relationship for future employment when students graduate. If it works out, the intern returns with perfect qualifications, which were acquired on the job. "The folks in our Internet Group have a skill set or real talent that we're in desperate need of," Eberlein said.

In addition, hiring former interns makes financial sense. Companies can save up to $6,000 for every intern they hire as a full-time employee rather than going through traditional recruitment channels, according to Steve Higgins, CEO of Pittsburgh-based USInterns.com Inc., an intern portal that links college students, placement workers and employers and that provides guidance to each constituency.

But even the skilled intern pool is getting tight, Eberlein said. "Two years ago, I could get interns for the Internet Group at the drop of a hat," he said. "Now, it's much more competitive."

"Companies are going to have to go deeper into the food chain and build relationships with sophomores and juniors," Higgins said. Cognos' Ashe is already eyeing high school students for summer jobs. "There are bright kids out there with good ideas," he said.

Lisa Kosan is a free-lance writer and editor in Massachusetts. She can be reached at lkosan@mediaone.net.