Do Interns Help Tech Companies’ Growth?

Hiring interns is a recruiting strategy.

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Answer by Gayle Laakmann McDowell, founder and CEO of CareerCup; author of Cracking the PM Interview, Cracking the Coding Interview, and Cracking the Tech Career:

It’s pretty well understood at tech companies that interns are a net negative (in the short term) for a company.

Interns are, with few exceptions, very inexperienced. They don’t have the skills yet to contribute much, so they just won’t get a lot done. They need training, close oversight, and management. This means that they distract the more productive full-time developers from their jobs. They’re also fairly well-paid within tech companies.

The work that they accomplish is insufficient to compensate for all those costs. They work slowly and are more likely to make mistakes, as mentioned earlier. Moreover, because their skills are low and less certain, companies will tend to prefer to assign any really valuable work to a full-time employee.

Then, of course, realize all the expense that goes into an intern program: recruiter time, interviews, etc. All of this could also be said for new grad hires, but they stick around for longer after they’ve ramped up on a project.

It’s pretty well-acknowledged in tech companies that you don’t hire interns as “cheap labor.” You hire them as a recruiting strategy. It’s a way of doing an extended, in-depth interview, and thus reducing the odds that you hire the wrong person. It also gets your name out there on college campuses and hopefully makes graduating students more likely to consider your company.

There are probably ways of making interns a bit more productive. You could design an interview process that selects (more) for those with skills to make an immediate impact. But then those people would be less likely to be effective full-time employees (if it weren’t believed to have such a tradeoff, the company would be using this for their full-time employees already). It doesn’t really make sense to design a new interview process to increase productivity for three months and sacrifice the full-time potential a bit.

Internships are essentially extended interviews—a drain on productivity in the short term in an effort to hire more effectively in the long term.

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