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What your interns can teach you

By Tam Harbert
August 13, 2012 06:00 AM ET

We Energies

Lesson learned: Put some teeth in your internship program by asking managers to justify student positions, not merely fill them.

Value gained: New hires already steeped in company culture and corporate values.

In years past, We Energies, a utility company that provides electricity to parts of Wisconsin and Michigan, hadn't put much effort into its summer opportunities for students, typically starting the process too late to recruit the best candidates.

Recognizing that both the company and the students could be getting more out of the partnerships, We Energies revamped its program a couple of years ago to make a distinction between IT interns and student summer workers, according to John Brewer, service desk manager at the company. "We wanted to turn [internships] into a program rather than just a summer hiring exercise," he says.

The company now has a formal IT internship program that runs for two summers, with three to four students joining the program each year. Meanwhile, it continues to hire other students to work in less specialized summer jobs. The new program gives interns an opportunity to shine and gives the company an opportunity to hire top performers.

One change involved asking IT managers to give a business justification for hiring interns. Rather than just hearing that the managers hope to bring in students, "we want to hear what they plan to do with them," Brewer says. "We want to make sure that it isn't just grunt work." This approach not only makes better use of interns, but also ensures that they are matched with projects that suit their skills and aptitudes.

The company also extended the program over two summers, giving interns more opportunity to work in different parts of IT and also giving the company a longer window for evaluating their potential.

"Since December of 2011, five interns have graduated from school; all five have been offered permanent positions, and all five have accepted those positions within our IT department," says Brewer.

One such intern was Scott Sullivan, now 24 and an associate IT application consultant for We Energies.

"Through my internship, I was able to apply my appreciation and passion for IT to initiatives that support critical processes and functions," recalls Sullivan, who spent one year in the old summer worker program and one semester as a new IT intern. "I was given the opportunity to join the application support team and participate in an ongoing companywide software upgrade."

"They haven't seen any limits yet," says JPL's Soderstrom. "What we have to do as managers is to harness and support that energy, and of course, when they break a few eggs, help them clean it up."

Harbert is a Washington, D.C.-based writer specializing in technology, business and public policy and a frequent Computerworld contributor.

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