A Winning Manpower Strategy in a Market Shortage
The challenges of IT service provision at a university parallel those of American business. At Kent State University's University Information Systems (UIS), most of our IT resources are devoted to the work best described as strategic necessities: the systems work that must be done to keep computer services at our university in competitive parity with those of other universities. Yet we are aware of IT-based opportunities which might provide true competitive advantage to our organization in attracting and retaining quality students.
While we tussle with such strategically necessary challenges as the Y2K crisis, the replacement and phase-out of legacy systems, and implementation of new systems, we are also developing and implementing "cutting edge" IT innovations. At Kent State University, we are working on providing individual computing services to students and faculty at an unprecedented level, particularly pushing our capabilities in network services, multimedia distance communications technology, and our web presence. As of Fall 1997 students are able to link up to all university systems and to the Internet from their dormitory rooms. A distance learning initiative now links electronic classrooms between the main campus and 7 branch, or regional, campuses so that faculty can and do teach classes to groups of students on multiple campuses with complete, real-time audio and video interactivity. At the same time, we are building a web presence that not only offers the predictable information about the university, but with intranet features that will soon enable students to access course registration information, and to register for classes.
While the pressure to provide innovative computer solutions to information needs throughout the university steadily increases, the resources to meet these growing demands do not. As a state-funded university, we do not have the options available to industry in attracting and retaining IS professionals. A local business competitor for IS personnel is now offering a bonus of a year's pay to new hires who stay with the company for two years. One of our best large systems' technicians now works for that firm, and reports that he will be paid a bounty for every former colleague that he can attract to his new employer. Such incentive plans are unthinkable in the public sector.
Although we have been quite successful at hiring talented and dedicated people who find personal advantages in working in a university environment, we experience the skill erosion predictable in a work environment that virtually reinvents itself every two years. The cost of continuously upgrading employee skills through training is daunting, including employee time away from the job as well as trainers' fees and training materials. Retention is an equally frustrating challenge. As our employees gain training and experience, business employers actively seek to hire them away.
The manpower challenge at Kent State University simply cannot be solved using conventional business methods. Most of our IS personnel resources are and must continue to be dedicated to mission-critical projects which enable us to continue to provide the IS services which are strategic necessities. In order to staff innovative projects which may be sources of competitive advantage to our university, we have to find IS talent that is current in the newest technologies, with enthusiasm needed to invent solutions to unanticipated problems, and who are willing to work for "peanuts." We have found and employed such IS talent in our College of Business's Computer Information Systems interns.
2. A Winning Manpower Strategy
Hiring interns is a strategy receiving increasing interest in industry. IS recruiting hardships are well documented:
In the U.S. alone, which accounts for two-thirds of the world's $300 billion market in software products and services, some 190,000 high-tech jobs stand open, most of them for programmers.... But recruiters are having fits filling jobs nearly everywhere. Worldwide, there are more than 400,000 positions open," says Sushma Rajagopalan, head recruiter for Mastech Systems Corp. (Baker et al. 1997).
As demand for IS professional talent rapidly outstrips supply, hiring interns may hold substantial value for many firms. It enables firms to get a "head start" on the market of new IS graduates and to train new employees at a lower cost. However, even when, as is the case with UIS, budget constraints do not allow employers to retain their IS interns full-time when they graduate, there are multiple benefits to employing college interns.
However, making good use of college interns requires a clear understanding of both the students' strengths and limitations, and careful management of the projects on which they are placed. In the following sections we will first discuss the advantages, both expected and unexpected, experienced by UIS with its IS interns. Next we present a case study of an intern initiative developed at Kent state University over the past year. We explore the limitations and management concerns of successfully utilizing intern manpower, and conclude with recommendations for successfully integrating interns into a firm's IS manpower strategy.
2.1 The benefits of hiring college IS interns
The advantages discovered in employing our interns can be classified in three groups: Skills acquisition, cost benefits, and skills enhancement for the permanent staff. College IS majors bring the latest in languages and computing skills to their new jobs. They work for far less than their graduated classmates, and they share their knowledge enthusiastically with their co-workers on the job.
New technology and "start up" skills. One of the greatest advantages to hiring IS college students is the state-of-the art skills they bring to their work. Today's IS students are comfortable with web development tools, small systems set up and use, and the newer programming languages. As valuable as their new-technology skills were found to be, however, was the infectious enthusiasm they bring to their work. Students are already in a learning mindset, and will attack new challenges with tremendous enthusiasm, as long as they understand the task they are given and are clear on at least some strategies for getting started.
The current skills and enthusiasm of a team of IS students makes new programs more feasible. They are not already committed to ongoing projects or entrenched in the use of a particular technology. Furthermore, they are comfortable with the experience of learning a new technology area, completing a project in it, and moving on to another. That is their experience with the classes they take from semester to semester. Quick start-up of new projects in new technologies is first a survival method in IS programs, and by the end of the student's junior year or the beginning of the senior year, has become a particular competency.
Best bargain on the market.Current pay rates for new, permanent IS personnel directly out of college averages around $35,000 in northeast Ohio. Clearly, pay rates for IS professionals with a few years' experience in any of our current technologies increase rapidly. IS interns are a considerable bargain in cost terms. In northeast Ohio, interns can reasonably expect a pay scale of ten to fifteen dollars per hour. They usually work twenty hour weeks during fall and spring semesters and full time during the summers.
A month's training for a new employee who has just graduated will cost $3,000 in salary, plus benefits, plus the cost of the training. Interns would cost only a little over half as much for the same amount of time. Of course interns rarely are sent to a month's full-time training: more often they are given small segments of training in house, or "over-the-shoulder" training, and learn by doing. Through this inexpensive contribution of on-the-job training to the intern, employers develop for themselves a pool of potential employees with added skills and known fit.
Knowledge transfer. Knowledge transfer works two ways when interns are added to the IS staff. The skill and knowledge transfers to interns should be well-known by now: Interns gain training and practical experience that prepares them to be better IS professionals when they graduate. The work experience gives them better insight into the courses they take subsequently, and it offers them a unique opportunity to explore different career paths within the field. The knowledge transfer to permanent staff may be less obvious or anticipated. They often bring new skills and technologies with them that staff would only otherwise see in expensive training sessions. Permanent staff also get re-exposed to fresh perspectives without the learned biases of the firm's standard practices.
In the fall of 1996, UIS decided to initiate a project to develop an intranet for student registration information. It required better html-writing skills for front-end development than were currently available from the staff. The project also required integration with our legacy database. One potential source identified for bringing in the html skills was students in the university's College of Business. If student interns could do most of the front-end development, and if they could work together with our permanent staff to come up to speed on the data transfer side, the project would be feasible. The following section describes our successful experience launching an intern-dependent new system project.
2.2 The Case at Kent's UIS With intranet project and staffing needs in mind, the Director and Associate Director of UIS approached the Computer Information Systems (CIS) faculty in the College of Business with the idea of a partnership. They wanted to hire IS students for this and future intranet development projects. In return they would make themselves open to sharing information about those and other projects. The CIS Curriculum Coordinator, Undergraduate Advisor, and Intern Coordinator all responded with enthusiasm. The Associate Director and Intern Coordinator worked together to define skills required and identify potential candidates. Some html knowledge, basic programming skills, and exposure to database principles were desirables. The ability to self-start and genuine enthusiasm for learning new IS skills were essentials. Three students, one MBA student and two undergraduates, were eventually hired to begin at the start of the spring 1997 semester. They were selected deliberately so that their graduation dates were staggered. UIS was building in a strategy for limiting the negative effects of short employment terms. As one student graduated, a new one could be hired, and the experienced interns could help bring the new one up to speed.
From day one when the students arrived, they approached every task with the excitement of a kid at the candy counter. When they saw their workstations for the first time, they were so excited that they forgot to take their coats off before powering up and logging on. They participated within the department and on work teams as full staff members. As such, they learned the realities of the system development cycle, such as involving users and working with other staff members with the various skill sets needed to complete a diverse project.
The legacy staff and interns were assigned to teams with one of the legacy staff members assuming responsibility and accountability for their team's effort. This working relationship permitted knowledge transfer across all members of the team. The student interns were able to share their knowledge of web development tools and techniques, while the legacy staff was able to share their knowledge of the requirements of documentation and standards and why these "extra steps" are important.
Because of the 'leading edge' knowledge interns bring to a legacy staff, as well as the enthusiasm of youth in their first information technology job, they present a challenge, without threat, to the legacy staff. They treated the job somewhat like a class and thought nothing of taking work home (homework!), frequently bringing back new ideas or solutions the next day.
Their enthusiasm is contagious and the legacy staff, not to be outdone by those young kids, can be found taking manuals home, buying books, and approaching tasks with a focus and intensity beyond the normal for a 'tenured' employee. And the student intern comes without the baggage of 'that's how we've always done it', 'it can't be done', etc. Those phrases are not in their vocabulary.
The students do all this without threat. The legacy staff knows the student will only be there for a couple of semesters and then be gone; therefore, they do not perceive any threat to their job. In fact, they know they will be supporting whatever projects the student worked on and therefore must become the student themselves and learn the new technologies from the intern. In the first semester that students worked with University Information Systems personnel, several of the legacy staff learned how to make legacy data available to the web and a couple have learned html, cga and some java; and without the cost of sending personnel to expensive classes with the associated travel costs and loss of their time out of the office.
Since a legacy staff member was placed in the position of team leader and was held accountable for the results of their team's efforts, they were able to gain management experience and develop their team skills. This is a benefit to both the employee and the department as we were able to assess some of the management skills of the employee and target areas for improvement, and the employee is able to gain some leadership experience without the full commitment of a permanent assignment. Employing interns has proved a win-win situation for the University, the IS department, and the student. In addition, the future employer of the student wins. They employ a graduate who has experience in a real IT job working with others of diverse skill sets and users to complete a project by a specific date.
While this paper focuses on the many advantages of hiring IS college interns, it is important to recognize that interns have definite limitations. In the past year, we have interviewed 20 intern employers in industry and identified a set of common problems. Some of these problems simply reflect the immaturity of some students as they venture into their first professional work experience in the market. Communication and teamwork skills, while cultivated in school through both focused courses (such as speech communications and writing) and group projects in various classes, will still be crude in some interns. Similarly, some interns will not immediately sense the difference in expectations of timeliness between the workplace and the classroom.
Another problem occurs when students are hired who do not have the complete set of skills needed for the job, and they do not have a supervisor or mentor who can work with them when they run into problems. While the students often have the initiative to search documentation or other sources to learn the needed information, it can slow down their progress. Employers who do not fully understand the work the intern is doing or the nature of the problems he is experiencing, may give him a poor evaluation, when in fact expectations were not realistic.
These problems are the exception, rather than the rule. Most interns are so anxious to please their new employers and to "make good" that they are extremely conscientious and professional in their work. Those students who do not adapt immediately on their own usually respond quickly to pointers offered by their supervisors. Employers who have identified weaknesses in their interns in either communications or professionalism have generally been quick to defend the student on grounds of improvement.
Adding student interns to the IS staff can increase productivity, knowledge transfer, and the pool of high-quality potential future employees. Through the experience of the intern's intranet case, we offer the following set of recommendations to other employers who would consider tapping into intern power.
Recruiting interns. Employers should develop and maintain a strong recruiting relationship with an area university.
Pay interns competitively.Do not plan to pay these interns at standard "student worker" employment rates. In northeast Ohio, IS interns are routinely offered ten to fifteen dollars per hour. They are given raises as their skills repertoire increases.
Empower interns to succeed. The employer has a responsibility to set up both the project and the intern (or interns) to succeed. The following steps are highly recommended.
Plan for high turnover. The short-term tenure of interns can be viewed as a handicap or as an advantage. Although students leave in a comparatively short time after they get started in their job, with a little planning they can be systematically and smoothly replaced. If interns are involved in training their replacements, they both gain experience in training, and reduce the strain of turnover. And as new interns come into the firm, they continuously bring in the latest technologies and work processes, and the freshest enthusiasm with them.
Baker, S., McWilliams, G., and Kripalani, M. "The Global Search for Brainpower," Business Week International (3538), August 4, 1997.
King, J. "Companies turn to Colleges for IS recruits," Computerworld (31:16), April 21, 1997, p. 24.
Article written by:|
Nancy Bogucki Duncan, College of Business, Kent State University
Bruce Petryshak, Information Systems and Telecommunications, Kent State University