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Latitude Geographics Group product support analyst Victoria McDonald, left, and company founder and CEO Steven Myhill-Jones in the company kitchen. Ms. McDonald was brought on as an intern, and then hired as a permanent employee. (Garrett Chan/Courtesy of Latitude Geographics Group)
Latitude Geographics Group product support analyst Victoria McDonald, left, and company founder and CEO Steven Myhill-Jones in the company kitchen. Ms. McDonald was brought on as an intern, and then hired as a permanent employee. (Garrett Chan/Courtesy of Latitude Geographics Group)

STAFFING

Forget fetching coffee. Interns prove their worth Add to ...

Camosun College computer systems technology student Victoria McDonald applied for a job at Victoria, B.C.-based Latitude Geographics Group Ltd. last summer, but was instead offered a paid internship.

She spent four months working as a support technician at the software company, helping clients troubleshoot software problems. Her performance was evidently impressive: At the end, the company offered her a full-time job.

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It’s a common scenario at Latitude, which usually has two to four interns or co-op students at work at any given time, says founder and chief executive officer Steven Myhill-Jones. Of the company’s approximately 60 employees, about a quarter are former interns or co-op students, he says.

It’s one hiring strategy the company uses to find tech talent in the software industry, he says.

“It’s a great way to try people out and see how they fit within the organization,” he says. If interns don’t work out, they at least can put an internship on their resume.

Mr. Myhill-Jones is a big fan of interns, saying they help with the company’s day-to-day operations, as well as specific projects that staff don’t have time for. They also have novel ideas, from which the business can benefit. “We’ve seen co-op students and interns introduce great ideas, fresh new perspectives, and they often bring a lot of passion and energy,” he says.

For small businesses, bringing on interns can be a smart strategy for finding new talent, as well as filling in workflow gaps, and creating positive relationships inside the company and with the community, says Jen Silver, owner of Toronto-based recruitment company Silver Recruitment.

She says she’s recently been seeing more companies among her clients take on interns. “I think once a company gets to try it out a couple of times and figures out the value, they lock in,” she says.

A newly launched website, Springtern is one place that small businesses interested in finding interns can turn to.

The site aims to connect small business owners and students seeking work experience. It allows companies to post projects, including the time commitment involved, and invites students to apply for the opportunities.

For businesses, this virtual approach provides access to a wider range of students from schools all over Canada, not just the closest institution, says Ben Wise, one of its founders.

And it’s timely: Jobs for new grads are scarce and small companies often hesitate to invest in a new employee, because of limited funds, Mr. Wise says. “This helps them ease into it and say, ‘Let’s start with a project here or there, to make sure we’ve got enough work to keep on a full-time employee or even an intern. I think it gives them more flexibility during an economically tough time.”

Staffing is one of many benefits interns can bring to a small business. They are a less expensive way for small companies to fill in the workflow gaps and can be more adaptable than an employee, Ms. Silver says.

“You can’t always demand that your permanent hires be as flexible as a new intern,” she says. People hired for specific job roles may shrug at tasks beyond the scope of their job description. “Our clients generally find [interns]are good at getting things done, but open to moving around on jobs,” she says.

Toronto entrepreneur Ali McEwan, founder and owner of Baby On Board Apparel , says interns have been instrumental in the development of her company, helping with tasks that often fall by the wayside.

Ms. McEwan, who has yet to hire her first employee, has had about four interns over the past couple of years. She recalls one who managed her e-commerce and inventory responsibilities. “Her three hours a week saved me so much time and worry about how to squeeze it in,” she says.

Interns can also have a positive effect on permanent employees at small companies, says Toronto-based human resources consultant Tom Armour, president of High Return Selection TM. “I find that nine out of 10 employees enjoy having an intern in the department,” he says. “It breaks up the monotony of the workplace and gives them a chance to be teachers and mentors.”

Still, he and others advise companies to make sure the experience is beneficial for both the business and the intern. That means they should be given real responsibilities, and paid, he says.

Interns who have a positive experience are likely to spread the word – which can be helpful in the hunt for talent, he says.

“Many skill areas in Canada are very competitive…When you have an instructor or teacher making referrals, it’s just a leg up on the competition. You hire the person before they’re even out in the market,” Mr. Armour says. This gives companies a chance to hire the best talent before other companies snap them up.

Talent recruitment is part of the motivation for People Pharmacy Inc. in Victoria, which has provided coop placements and internships for about a decade. Each year, the company hires one or two co-op students for three of its five stores.

“It’s a competitive landscape,” says Rasool Rayani, owner and vice-president of operations for the 50-employee company.

While the company has a low turnover rate, Mr. Rayani says he knows it’s important to have a good reputation as an employer.

Some small business owners shy away from using interns – worrying, perhaps, that they don’t have the time to bring a newbie up to speed or may not have the time or staff to properly mentor, Ms. Silver says.

Her advice: Structure is important, so assign a mentor to an intern right off the bat, to make sure they receive the guidance they need to settle into the company. “Because everyone’s so involved in their own work, no one’s going to think of the poor intern who’s coming in to be of value but may not be noticed,” she says.

She recommends that companies treat interns like employees, giving them clear duties, offering regular feedback, including a performance review at the end of their term, and not be afraid to let them go if it’s not working out.

That said, she advises companies keep their expectations realistic. Newbies will need some guidance about business etiquette and may not have the technical prowess of a senior employee, she says.

Especially at small businesses, she believes interns should be paid. “For well-known name brands, interns don’t care, it’s a foot in the door. But for an unknown startup, I think you should pay at least minimum wage. They deserve it, they’re working.”

Paul Young, CEO of software developer Skybound Software Inc., a Waterloo, Ont.-based company with seven employees, is happy to invest plenty of time and resources into his interns.

For the same reason some companies shy away from hiring interns, he’s come to embrace the experience. For the last couple of years, he’s worked with four interns and co-op students.

“When you hire an intern, you’re starting with a clean slate,” he says. “When we bring in someone who already has a lot of experience in the industry, they’re coming in with a lot of baggage, and you have to un-teach and re-teach them.”

Because computing science students are in smaller numbers, Mr. Young purposely hires smart students in other fields – especially mathematics – and trains them on-site.

Currently, the company has two interns working at its office, and employs two former interns who were hired on after their work terms ended.

“You’re basically acting as their Jedi master and teaching them everything,” he says. “The loyalty is a night and day difference.”

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