Published Monday, March 8, 2004

Return to Geography Internship GEO 497.

Sometimes interns don't make the grade

She seemed the perfect fit. About a year and a half ago, managers at Slack Barshinger, a Chicago advertising agency, hired a recent graduate of a local college for a paid three-month internship.

She did just fine - until the first month went by.

That's when she started moping around the office, spending much of her time complaining about her tumultuous romance.

Supervisors tried to tell her the facts of work life. "We explained that you can't walk into a meeting crying about your boyfriend," said Dana Kessler, senior account manager. "We talked about appropriate behavior and solutions that would work."

When the behavior continued, Kessler talked to the intern again - and then again.

"It got to the point that we couldn't put her in front of a client, or even a senior member of the team, because her behavior was so unpredictable," Kessler said. When the three months ended, the intern - who had wanted a full-time job - was not asked to return.

It is hardly a secret that interns come cheaper than full-time employees, making them especially attractive to small businesses, and demand for them has been growing in recent years.

The number of students at New York University who have accepted internships has risen by about 20 percent over the past year and a half, according to Trudy Steinfeld, director of the school's office of career services, and other colleges and universities report a similar trend.

A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa., found that for the third year in a row, employers cited internship programs as the No.1 way to recruit recent college graduates, up from seventh place in 1998.

But hiring college students as interns does carry risks. They can show up late for work, answer phone calls with insufficient grace and let school assignments get in the way of their job duties.

"There are a lot of hidden costs," said Elizabeth Saunders, chairman and co-founder of Ashton Partners, an investor relations firm in Chicago, which has one paid intern on staff.

And while such transgressions are usually little more than inconveniences, they can have more serious consequences.

In 1995, Marty Kotis, chief executive of Kotis Properties, a real estate firm in Greensboro, N.C., let a new intern observe as a reporter interviewed him.

When the story appeared, Kotis was taken aback by its negative tone. He later found out that the intern, who had been sitting out of his line of vision, had been rolling her eyes at many of the reporter's questions.

"She told me she was offended by the way the intern acted," he said.

One of the trickiest tasks for employers is sizing up an intern's level of competence.

Joyce Gioia, president of the Herman Group, a management consulting company in Greensboro that specializes in trend forecasting, once hired a college student who claimed bookkeeping expertise.

But when she checked the intern's work, "everything was a mess," she said. "The numbers didn't add up." Gioia had to redo the books from scratch. After that, "We learned to hire interns for filing the bookkeeping, not for doing it themselves," she said.

Unrealistic expectations for interns seem to be common among small-business owners.

Lisa Mackenzie recalls how two years ago she asked an intern at her marketing services firm in Portland, Ore., to complete a marketing research study on a new technology. After a few weeks, the intern handed in 500 pages of unorganized information.

"I didn't even know where to begin," she said. She turned the report over to a full-time employee, who spent a day trying to make sense of it.

Business owners who hire young students as interns sometimes fall into the trap of mixing their role as temporary employer with that of benefactor or parental substitute.

Two years ago, Gioia promised to contribute $500 toward the tuition of part-time interns and $1,000 for full-timers who maintained A averages in school. One particularly productive intern asked for an advance on the money.

"We decided he had been a very good employee and did it," she said. Two weeks later, he stopped showing up for work. She discontinued the scholarship program.

The solution to such problems, business experts say, is stricter management surveillance.

"You have to hire an intern with the same level of scrutiny that you would a full-time hire," said Rich Sloan, a co-founder of StartupNation, a radio show and Web site in Birmingham, Mich., that gives advice to small-business owners.

That means conducting rigorous interviews with candidates, checking their references and reviewing their work experience.

Dan Cunningham, founder of Dan's Chocolates, a chocolate maker in Braintree, Mass., has his own bag of tricks for testing applicants, like setting up early-morning interviews to see whether they arrive on time and keeping track of how prompt they are in sending him the paperwork he requests.

Experts also urge business owners to spell out to prospective hires exactly what their job responsibilities will be.

Jenny Bouwman, director of career services at the Art Institute of California in Santa Ana, Calif., suggests writing out a formal contract outlining not only duties to be performed and projects to be completed, but also the time the intern is expected to arrive and leave, or even software programs he or she should know how to use.

But don't just tell them, she suggests; train them.

"Assigning a manager to be a mentor for each intern is very important," Bouwman said. Mackenzie, the Portland marketer, now gives interns detailed instructions to follow when they do research projects for her. And Kotis of Kotis Properties asks interns to do homework - research and reading on the industry - to reinforce what they learn on the job.

Supervising inexperienced interns can be costly, however. "The more training you do, the more time it takes," said Sloan of StartupNation. "You're using the resources of other people in the business to whom you've delegated supervisory responsibility, and that can have a pretty significant ripple effect throughout the company."

Where employers look for new hires

1. Internship programs
2. Cooperative programs with universities
3. On-campus recruiting
4. Career/job fairs
5. Faculty contacts
6. Employee referrals
7. Student organizations and clubs
8. Schools' Web postings
9. Company Web postings
10. Career office's printed posting
11. Resumés from career offices
12. Recruitment advertising
13. Internet job sites
14. Internet resumé listings
15. Online job fairs
Source: National Association of Colleges and Employers 2004 Job Outlok survey

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