Student staffers

Imagine getting a summer job in the ultimate tropical paradise, Hawaii, with free use of a large house and accompanying pool that you share with fellow twenty-something co-workers. If you're thinking this is the premise for the latest incarnation of MTV's "The Real World," you'd be wrong.

A group of interns lived out this scenario while spending the summer working for Viata Online, a Honolulu firm that builds travel transaction systems. The company hired interns from such top schools as Carnegie Mellon, Harvey Mudd, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University to build the majority of the firm's software.

Like the U.S. mainland, Hawaii faces a crunch when it comes to hiring IT workers. Though beautiful and warm year-round, the island has a high cost of living -- a prohibiting factor to attracting talent. To fill gaps in its 50-person workforce, Viata has turned to interns and cooperative education students.

"Being a start-up, we don't have a lot of money, but we need talented people to get the job done quickly," says Jay Abel, chief technology officer of Viata. The intern arrangement has worked out well for the firm. "Our students are craving real-world examples and want to play with stuff they learn about in school. They're sharp young minds that hold a lot of information."

Cooperative education usually involves a student spending part of the school year working full-time and the rest of the time in a traditional classroom setting. Approximately 241,000 undergraduate students participate in co-ops at some 117,000 work sites in the U.S., according to a 1998 survey from the Cooperative Education Association (CEA). The CEA also reported about 600 schools offer some type of co-op program.

Northeastern University, the founder of one of the first co-op programs, says it places about 6,000 students per year in co-op positions. Other schools that emphasize co-ops include San Jose State University, Drexel University in Philadelphia and the University of Waterloo in Canada.

Handango, a handheld software vendor in Hurst, Texas, is taking advantage of interns to help fill job spots. "There's a tremendously well-publicized scarcity of technical resources in the world.... There's too many jobs and too many open reqs," says Clint Patterson, vice president of product management at Handango.

The company currently uses seven interns, including Edward Phillips, a sophomore computer science major at the University of North Texas in nearby Denton. Phillips helps with the daily maintenance of Handango's Web site, while higher-level designers work on more abstract tasks.

Phillips says the stint at Handango is a valuable resumé builder. Employers benefit, too, by gaining eager workers who can be hired for relatively low wages compared with those who have completed their degrees.

At Computer Associates, technical co-op students and interns earn an average of $12 per hour, says Joe Burger, manager of enterprise networking at CA in Islandia, N.Y. They also get perks such as free breakfast and a T-3 line to the Internet for Napster, he adds jokingly. Burger says his interns were instrumental in configuring workstations as part of a VPN rollout.

But cheap talent isn't the only reason for adding students to the payroll. "I look at it from this perspective: You get in early on a kid that could be a rising star," says Ed Wolff, vice president of human resources at Interland, a Web hosting firm in Atlanta. "We need to start early and get in front of these folks before others do."

The downside to hiring co-op students or interns is that they work for short periods of time -- usually a few months -- before heading back to the world of academia. Managers say it's essential to hire self-starters who are eager to learn new things and can work in a team. Preparation and guidance are key, says Viata's Abel.

And because interns may be evaluating the company for possible post-graduate employment, it's important for companies to make students feel welcome.

"I made my decision based almost entirely on the strength of the people and my impression of the environment," says David Leslie, an intern at Boston's and a junior computer science and economics major at Boston College.

While working at last summer, Leslie helped build the company's online legal help site. He says will be on his list of prospective employers when he graduates, but he's keeping his options open. "I found that just posting a resumé with the words 'Web developer' is good for half a dozen calls from placement people a day," he says.

This story, "Student staffers" was originally published by Network World.

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