by Christine Celli

Why CIOs Should Hire Interns for IT jobs

Jun 14, 20113 mins

When you hire interns to do IT jobs, you’re helping to train the professionals who will become your future workforce. Consider the time and effort worth the investment.

Tempting though it may be, you can’t put off hiring young people forever. As IT budgets expand, the pressure on you to innovate increases while your current workforce ages and retires. Eventually, adding some energy, enthusiasm and newer skills from the entry-level talent pool will be critical to your business.

By bringing in younger workers now—as interns, for example—you’ll have more, better-equipped talent when you need it most.

“There are so many things happening in the field that the old guard doesn’t want to deal with,” observes Eric Hungate, CIO of the Texas Board of Schools. Hungate has used his leadership in groups like the Association of IT Professionals to build student chapters at the high school and college levels as a means of developing IT’s future ranks. “Students have the wherewithal, savvy and need—because they need jobs—to embrace” new skills and emerging technologies, he says.

Hungate adds that strategies to hire recent college grads are a tough sell to CEOs. “There’s a mentoring piece, slicing out different tasks and setting performance milestones, that is pretty time-consuming.”

Most CEOs want employees who can contribute right away. But according to Barbara Ray, co-author of Not Quite Adults, it’s not fair to expect that from today’s college grads. They’re not slackers; Ray’s book draws on a decade of research on 20-somethings that suggests that only the hardest working, most driven students from the class of 2011 are sending you their resumes. But helicopter parenting and an emphasis on education over work experience means today’s grads may not know workplace conventions, such as how to dress or how to behave when on a deadline.

On the flip side, these hires are good at following orders and tend to thrive when given a clear sense of what it takes to advance.

Invest in Interns

Tom Flanagan, former CIO of Amgen, knows the investment in young workers pays off. Amgen created a strategy to change the age distribution in IT, hiring roughly 20 college students a year. “We retained almost 90 percent of those kids over the last five to six years, and they now make up about one-sixth of the IT organization,” says Flanagan.

Amgen’s program works and is affordable because it gets both the college students and team members who are alumni of area schools involved.

“We took senior people at Amgen that graduated from UCLA and got them to volunteer as liaisons—they became the recruiters,” Flanagan says.

Since students start as interns, Amgen can judge whether they’ll be good hires. Flanagan stresses interns should get real work. “We tried to make them feel important right away and give them good assignments.”

He says the interns have even pushed more senior people to improve themselves. “It’s had an enormously positive effect across the organization.”

Meanwhile, Amgen also communicates with the heads of various programs at each school about how well its students are prepared for the workplace. That’s important, says Hungate, because university curricula often trend two or three years behind business in the technology they use and skills they teach. Including the schools in your efforts will yield results.

I’d like to know how you’re integrating entry-level staff, along with other leadership and management issues you’re facing. In future columns, I’ll explore answers to such questions as how to deepen your leadership bench and how to delegate better. Let me hear from you about the challenges you’re up against.