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Graduate recruitment and internships: business cost or value?

Graduate recruitment and internships are treated differently in every organization. When you look back anywhere from five to 20 years at the experience encountered by myself and my developer colleagues, you get a lot of different stories. All these stories have similar themes: a sense of being “dumped in the deep end,” not knowing right from wrong, not knowing what to do, and generally missing a mentor are common war stories from “back in our day”.

SoT Logo-2014

We’re thrilled to say that Summer of Tech is changing all that, allowing us to provide graduates with a supportive, constructive environment to foray into the amazing world of technology.

Even back in 2007, a fledgling Xero was proud to be part of the Summer of Tech programme (then known as Summer of Code) – a three-month internship programme based on Google’s model of summer internships.

Today Summer of Tech has some impressive statistics, increasingly putting it on par with Xero’s own graduate and careers recruitment as a way to find excellent talent in Wellington’s IT industry. Over the years we have had 19 interns, 11 of which have stayed on in some form of part time or full time employment after their internship.

This year Xero was once again happy to don the cap of both sponsor and participant. We met a mammoth 100+ students, interviewed 37 and hired seven to work in Design, Operations and Development – each of those numbers represent the largest intake we’ve ever had.

This was the first year Xero has offered internships in the Operations area, the part of the business responsible for all things infrastructure and server related around the Xero accounting product.

There are a few lessons we’ve learnt from this from a business point of view:

Like any recruitment effort, you get what you put in

By the end of the process we had over 14 staff contributing parts of their time towards our Summer of Tech effort, which sounds like an awful lot. But if you take the normal process of hiring a single employee and think of the HR, interviewers and manager effort involved, we probably had a better return of our time. Every year we have put more effort into meeting, talking with, interviewing and getting to know the students, and it pays back in spades by finding good fits that suit our organization and the skills to help us become better, faster, stronger. We also find interns who are passionate about being here and enjoy their internship more. Our numbers have supported this: where originally 50 percent of our graduates stayed on, this year all but one (86 percent) stayed on in some form (and I should note that the one exception was a geographical reason – a bit hard to commute from another city).

Don’t underestimate the value you get because it’s ‘just interns’

We’ve found that some companies view internships as very temporary and don’t put as much effort into the process as you would for a full time employee.

The fact is internships are a viable long-term recruitment method as well as a realistic solution to short-term bottlenecks in projects. This year our interns worked on a variety of work – some internal projects we wanted to see happen but couldn’t spare the time right through to chipping in to make the accounting software our customers see in front of them.

We want our interns to love working in IT and love working at Xero – maybe we’ll see them again afterwards (and most certainly they’ll tell their friends). Although it does take some time to make sure they are taken care of, assigned a mentor, etc, we feel it’s worth it. And our numbers have shown it is – over the years we’ve increasingly found our graduates join us as part or full time employees.

Being trendy is so last year

I’m sure most people remember when they first saw the photos of Google offices: we all craved their designer offices, free restaurants and food, and baristas. At Xero we’re very fortunate to have a pretty enviable atmosphere and work environment.

But it turns out this is no longer the main drawing card – pool tables and coffee machines are mentioned all too often when companies try and sell themselves as a place to work. Graduate students are smart – they want interesting challenges, so don’t treat them like kids. So if you want to distinguish yourself and really get the students who are interested, talk about what they’ll actually get to do, the challenges they’ll help solve and the cool stuff they’ll get to play with – alongside the mention of your arcade machines and table tennis competitions, of course!

Talk the talk and walk the walk – who you get to sell you matters just as much as what you’re selling

Alongside your lovely Human Resource representatives, get people in front of students who are of the ilk you want (technical for IT grads, designers for Design grads etc). Seeing an enthusiastic, well-spoken person like them will resonate more with graduates and their potential future.

If you conduct interviews, again try and get people at the forefront who are both excellent representatives of their industry as well as good communicators – yes, potentially a rare combination, but again worth it. We want interns to see a potential future with us as an employer, and there’s no better way than to get them to meet and interact with people with the same background as them, just further down the career track. If we have graduates walk away thinking ‘wow, what a cool [name of our profession]’ then we’ve done our jobs right.

Don’t assume everyone really understands what you do

As Xero’s profile has risen in both New Zealand and the world, where we used to produce a ‘who?’ reaction from students, we now find students know us, what we do, and want to be part of the success story. And yet, the most common reaction we get during the internship is still “I didn’t realize how much you did here.”

It’s always hard to sell both yourself and your company to people who may not have heard about you, but don’t rest on your laurels if you’re a ‘big name’ either: make sure the graduates understand your challenges, the type of work you do, and what you’re looking for. You’ll find that some misunderstand the type of opportunities available in your business and it’s better to set the record straight to begin with.

Above all…

Having fun still drives results. It’s too easy to put on a façade when recruiting, but students are humans too – they can tell if someone is bored, if the person talking is going by rote, and if it’s a speech that’s been repeated 100 times. If you aren’t enjoying yourself either day to day or at the time you talk to them, they’ll know. And why would they want to come work for us if we were a negative place to be?

Part of that comes down to engaging (in our case technical) people and allowing them to take part and ownership of the process – mentorship opportunities, interviews, recruitment and generally everything about the new mini-us who is joining the team. Part of it is ensuring your staff genuinely believe it when they try to ‘sell’ the company at recruitment events.

But regardless – have fun with the process, with the graduates and with the mentorship. You will find very quickly that not only does it keep the role attractive to graduates but you might find a few nuggets reminding you what you enjoy about your profession and industry.

 

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1 comment

Heather Smith
3 April 2014 #

I’m a little micro business, and I’ve been ‘mentoring’ students through Griffith University annually – not a full on internship – but what fits with me – unexpectedly I’ve found these students eternally grateful – and as they go out into the workforce are a positive ambassador and in turn some have joined businesses and become clients for my services – full circle.

But I did not expect rewards – I had opportunities and happy to try and help others.

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