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Internships That Work

Set clear goals and treat interns like employees
When Jules Kaplan, president of ChekFaxx Development Co., hired an intern to do Visual Basic programming last summer, he had few reservations. The student received A's in his Visual Basic classes and was highly recommended by his instructor. It was only for 13 weeks, says Kaplan: "I figured, what could it hurt?" Quite a bit. The Scottsdale, Ariz., company paid the intern $3,900 but didn't get much in return, except a 13-week project delay. "When it was finished, we had to take what he did and trash it."

Naturally, that's not the end result of all IT internships. Many can give valuable assistance to staff-strapped employers. To succeed, companies must choose carefully, set clear goals for students, and sometimes value business over IT skills. "In the future, I'd concentrate on the students' general knowledge of how business works" instead of seeking the top students in computer-science classes, says Kaplan, whose software company lets computer printers produce customer-authorized checks. Next time, Kaplan will have the candidate work for a trial period without pay.

E-commerce software provider eOriginal Inc. sees internships as a chance to assess the skills of potential employees. "We really treat them like employees," says Kathyrn Whitmore, VP of software engineering for the Baltimore company. When students arrive, they have a job description, objectives, and a work team.

Northrop Grumann Corp. also recognizes the need to plan internships carefully. "In previous years, we've spotted success and failure with internships, depending on how well-defined the assignments are," says Greg Hodges, director of employment and recruiting for the electronic sensors and systems sector in Baltimore. Like eOriginal, Northrop Grumman considers interns for permanent employment. "When you show students you're taking this relationship seriously, you get a similar level of professional attitude and commitment," he says.

EOriginal will have three Java-savvy interns this year, the same as last year; Northrop Grumman's electronic sensors and systems sector had 10 interns last year and expects to have 15 this year. Because of the economy, many companies have put internships on hold, says Wendell Phipps, executive assistant to the director for Johns Hopkins University's Information Security Institute. The university's computer-science internship program will grow this year, Phipps says, but it won't meet its original goal-double the number of interns-because a lot of companies aren't hiring. -SANDRA SWANSON ([email protected])