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Business Education: Students for Hire

Michele Kriegman
1992, 'Students for Hire: Starting a college internship or cooperative education program can be an economical staff solution- and a worthwhile student experience', Business Journal of New Jersey, 12: 17-20.

Starting a college internship or cooperative education program can be an economical staff solution – and a worthwhile student experience.

Two years ago when Valerie Iola began interviewing part-time job applicants for her new company, Iola Marketing in Martinsville, she confronted a sad stream of laid-off advertising execs who were only interested in working with her firm until they found full-time employment. Then she hit on the perfect solution: Iola made the position a part-time college internship. In response, Iola Marketing got an enthusiastic, well-trained part-timer. And her intern, Diane Reubelt, a communications major at Rutgers University’s Cook College, gained “valuable real-world experience” while finishing her senior year of college classes.

Groundwater and Environmental Services Inc. (GES) opened its New Jersey office with only a full-time president and three student interns. Four years later, the firm boasts 80 employees – 10 percent of whom are former interns.

The experience of these two companies exemplifies two main attractions of internships to employers: Interns are a means of flexible employment, as well as a low-risk recruitment tool.

Employment flexibility. For companies that have just downsized, the flexibility of an internship can be especially beneficial. Philip I. Brilliant, permit administrator and one of the “founding” interns of GES’s Eastontown office, says, “It’s a more cost-effective approach than using a full-time employee in economic downtimes. If interns work 20 hours a week, they only bill 20 hours – and no benefits.”

Public Service Electric & Gas in Newark makes use of the flexibility of internships to hire for projects requiring full-time workers. The rest of the year students return to the classroom. And, although PSE&G is not downsizing, senior personnel coordinator Florence Herman says that their six-month internships “help us get additional staffing when we can’t get approval for full-time people.”

In fact, Carol Martin, director of cooperative education for Cook College, say that despite a slumping state economy, internship figures have held steady over the past two years, with formal internship programs placing over 5,000 student annually.

Interns also allow senior-level employees greater freedom to do advanced-level work as the intern takes over entry-level tasks that can be challenging to the student. At Iola Marketing, Reubelt says she started her internship “doing simple press releases and letters. Now I can take on more. [As a result], I think Valerie has been able to take on more work.” At GES, Brilliant says, “co-ops and interns do the work in the office and the staff engineers are in the field 24 hours a day. Meanwhile, the students are getting good experience.”

A recruitment tool. GES also uses internships as a recruiting tool, Brilliant says. “You get to teach them your way; mold them before you give them an offer.” In fact, GES has permanently hired all of the three interns it hosted last semester.

Gregory Mass, director of cooperative education and internships at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, says that of the 400 NJIT students who held internships last year, 70 percent were offered jobs by their hosting company and 50 percent accepted.

The recruiting picture is almost as rosy nationwide for school-sponsored cooperative-education programs. Sue Zivi, Ph.D., president of the Newark-based New Jersey Cooperative Education Association, says that 26 two- and four-year colleges and universities in New Jersey placed 5,500 co-op students in the 1991-1992 school year. Co-op hirings in growing businesses also increased 35 percent in 1992, she says, but “what we’re really developing is a partnership, between colleges and universities and the private sector, that is beneficial to both.”

Both employers and college advisors cite two reasons for the increase in intern and co-op student hirings: Colleges usually pre-screen student applicants before sending them to a potential employer; and, during the internship or co-op, both student and employer have a chance to judge whether they want to continue the relationship.

The cutting edge. Internships can also bring new techniques and fresh ideas to smaller businesses. “A student is often at the cutting edge of their field and they bring new ideas with them,” says Iola.

This realization by employers explains why computer science and environmental science are the fastest-growing fields for interns in New Jersey, according to Mass. He has placed students with environmental-consulting firms, as well as in-house environmental teams at Ciba-Geigy, the Department of Environmental Protection and Energy, and Panasonic’s new battery-recycling program.

Unlike older environmental and chemical engineers, Mass says, students learn “not only about environmental science, but also about current environmental regulations and compliance. Also, we’re in constant experimentation with new techniques for removing contaminants from air and soil. A chemical engineer on staff might not be trained in this new area.”

Computer science interns are also finding a growing niche, particularly with smaller start-up companies. “From a technology perspective, many small (firms) need someone to run a computer,” he says. “They may have $30,000 of equipment that goes unutilized or underutilized. The kids that come out of here build their own computers; they’re real whiz kids.”

Creating a program. It’s important for firms considering an internship or co-op program to establish contacts at a college or university. Just about any college professor or department head may arrange  internships, but cooperative education programs are more formalized . (See sidebar.)

A working definition of co-op education, according to Cook College’s Carol Martin, is either full- or part-time placement at a company, lasting anywhere from a summer to a year, during which the student receives work experience, college credit and wages. The school internship advisor may make on-site visits and help the employer create an orientation program. About 30 colleges and universities in New Jersey offer co-op programs, many of which get federal funding from the Department of Higher Education.

Caveats. There are some caveats to remember. Warns Mass, you “don’t want students to do only photocopying, running errands and telephone calls,” or you may earn a high turnover rate and a bad reputation at the student’s alma mater.

Finally, college interns expect and need more feedback than seasoned employees. Joseph J. Flanagan, manager of financial accounting and reporting at PSE&G, and an internship supervisor since 1982, says the three keys to reaping the benefits of an intern program are, “Communication, communication and communication. You’ve got to take a hands-on approach. Communicate program objectives. Communicate the company’s future and goals. Communicate and clearly let them know what you think of their performance.”

READY, SET, GO (Do-it-yourself HR)

Once you have your contacts, and decide on an internship or co-op program, there are four steps to follow.

1.        Create job description that gets progressively more complex over the course of the internship, and define the work as either an assistant to a position, special project work or an all-around trainee.

2.        Though many internships go unpaid, for a co-op program, create a wage structure that is competitive, but low enough to allow room for “good performance” raises and still not reach the pay scale of entry-level staffers.

3.        In New Jersey, you are not required to pay interns on paid holidays, nor to pay unemployment tax, but make it clear what fringe benefits they receive.

4.        Appoint a supervisor. The supervisor/student ratio can vary: PSE&G’s accounting department supervisor helps two to three students at a time, while at IBM’s Princeton facility, a single supervisor headed a whole department of interns at one time. Typically, however, there is only one person supervising each intern.


Picture caption: On-the-job training: Intern Diane Reubelt, with Joseph P. Ventola, Cook College co-op education coordinator, and Valerie Iola, of Iola Marketing Group.


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