This week, Small Business editor Caitlin Sykes talks to business owners about interns.

Ruth McDavitt is CEO of Summer of Tech, an internship programme for New Zealand IT companies. This year the programme will place around 135 interns in 55 companies.

When and how did Summer of Tech come about?

It was founded in 2006 by a group of high growth startup IT businesses inside the Wellington business incubator Creative HQ. They had a need for developers but didn't have any HR capacity or money to pay a recruiter. They knew there was talent out there in the universities and they wanted to get their hands on it, so they got together and gatecrashed a careers fair. From that they ended up hiring seven students for the summer.

That went quite well, but what they discovered quickly that summer was although the universities teach a lot of the fundamental basics, they don't teach a lot of the really practical technical skills that New Zealand businesses need. So they designed a workshop programme, which has evolved into what we now call our bootcamp, to develop those. That following year, and in subsequent years the programme has developed to include a lot of work around preparing interns with technical skills, as well as some of the softer workplace skills they'll need before they start their summer internships.


What are the interns generally doing once they're in workplaces?

The majority are doing web development or software development - about 80 percent. But we're also getting digital designers, analysts and marketers, and software testers coming through, so it's broadening.

What do the businesses involved tell you they get from the programme?

The first thing has to be that the interns are delivering value over the summer; the work they're doing is adding to the business. Then there's the whole idea of giving back and supporting the next generation of talent coming through. The companies see it as an investment in the wider New Zealand industry, not just in their own company. At the other end it's a strategic employment channel. The retention rate for our interns is quite high; about 80 percent of our interns from last year were retained after the summer with their host company.

We also do networking events for the students to meet the companies, but we've found there's a lot of networking that happens between the companies and we've had some great industry connections happen at our events.

How do the businesses you deal with get the most value out of their interns?

It goes back to doing it for the right reasons. If a business is doing it for cheap labour it's not going to work for anyone. You have to be committed, and realise you're making a long term investment in supporting an intern, and making their first work experience a positive one.

Ruth McDavitt, CEO of Summer of Tech.
Ruth McDavitt, CEO of Summer of Tech.

Preparation is important, so you have to put in enough time to pick a good project, pick a good student and really pitch the business because students will often have absolutely no idea about what a local company is doing. The top students will get multiple job offers, so they need to get excited about the cool technology of the company they're going to work for.


You also need to provide a technical mentor, because students are going to get stuck. They'll need someone who can help and invest that time especially in their first weeks on the job.

Smaller businesses can be stretched for resource, both in terms of time and money. What advice do you have on that front in terms of getting the most out of an internship opportunity?

That can be hard. We say to businesses that if you can't afford the time and money to have an intern then wait till next year because not having someone pulling the weight you need them to, or asking questions when you're really busy can really be a bad thing for a business. Summer can be a challenging time for Kiwi companies too because key staff may be on holiday.

If they are keen to go ahead, we'd encourage a smaller company that hasn't had an intern before to start with one, and spend time making sure the person is a really good cultural fit with the team, which is often more important than the technical skills.

Unpaid internships, or work experience arrangements are a bit of a bugbear for me. We're pretty staunch in our belief that you get out what you put into an internship, and if you don't think you can pay for a project, then why are you doing it? We see good value on both sides with a paid internship because if the company has skin in the game, they're going to do what they can to ensure there's a really good outcome. And ultimately if a company is not willing to pay, the industry experience the student is getting is not really commercial experience.