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  • Writer's pictureIan Wells

Waterloo example of world class internship program

Updated: Feb 25, 2019

In this post, I describe student internships and explore the opportunities in New Zealand to create a world class technology internship program.

The way things are now, New Zealand students when they graduate are competing for jobs with students worldwide.  New Zealand businesses need best world wide talent to stay competitive.  Let's give our students the best chance to fulfil there abilities and give NZ businesses the best access to top New Zealand talent right here.

Combining academic learning with real work experience is one way to do this.

I am passionate about  internship programs and have given talks on material in these blog posts to University of Canterbury  Science Faculty, Lincoln University Computer Science Faculty, CPIT and also at  the Canterbury Software Cluster.

Firstly, as QA manager, I found, after trying many approaches to hiring,  that interns and recent graduates had become some of my most effective Software Testers. They brought enthusiasm, skill and insights to the team. Interns became integral to my testing strategy.

I realize from personal experience transitioning from school to work  is a catch-22 time of life: it's hard to be hired if you don't have experience, but you need a job to get that experience. Our 4 children have gone through this transition themselves. Internships were key.

Before talking about New Zealand, I will talk about the University of Waterloo in Canada, as a best-in-class example of internships. Waterloo is where I went to school. Since then I have hired almost 20 interns from Waterloo.

If you are not familiar with it, the University of Waterloo is a highly respected engineering and computer science university, founded in 1957, with 30,600 full and part time students,   5300 full and part time graduates students, and 1100 full time faculty . It runs the largest co-op program in the world, generates 20,000 jobs in Ontario,  and has more company spin-offs than any other Canadian university.  For every dollar the Government of Ontario spends on the University of Waterloo, the university returns nearly nine times ($8.80) in economic impacts to the province.  Over 22% of all the spin-off technology companies in Canada originate from the University of Waterloo and Waterloo Region.

How does the Waterloo program work for students?

Waterloo calls their internship "co-op". It is brilliant. I went to the University of Waterloo as a freshman in the Bachelor of Maths program.  I went to school for 4 months for 1st half of year 1, then worked for 4 months, then completed the 2nd half of Year 1 at Waterloo, then worked for 4 months, etc, until my last year when I was at school for 8 months.

It  took me 5 years to get my 4 year degree.

I graduated with a degree and 2 years work experience. My first job after graduation was with an employer from one of my 6 work terms.

How did I choose my jobs as a student? Because I was in the co-op program, I paid more for my tuition.  My first month on campus, I went to the co-op building - yes, there is a whole building staffed with professionals  dedicated to setting students up with jobs ( the building in that picture has since been replaced by a larger one). All the companies who want to hire students are listed. I signed up for the companies I wanted to interview with. After sign-up time ended, I found out which of those companies wanted to interview *me*. I went to the interviews with them. I decided which company of those I wanted to work for and ranked them in order 1 through n.  At the end of the ranking period, I waited to hear which job I got. ( the companies had ranked all the students they interviewed 1 through n too).  A computer program found the match for each job opening and, at this point, both employer and student were committed to that job for the next work term.

My school term over, I went off on my work term - in my case, working for the Canadian government in Ottawa. I worked there 4 months full time, earning a competitive salary ( which was in fact enough to pay for my next school term). I applied my computer skills doing real work needed for that job.

At the end of the term, my employer gave me a grade and ranked me on various scales. The grade counted as part of my academic record. The ranking become part of my CV that would be seen in my next interview.

Even after my first 8 months at Waterloo, I had 4 months experience to put on my CV

Part 2

In my previous section, I described the University of Waterloo co-op

program from the students' point of view. Waterloo is interesting to

look at because it is "world-class" University for combining

work and academic experience.

My point is not to reproduce the Waterloo co-op experience in New

Zealand. To do so would require a massive shift in how universities

here are structured - Waterloo built the co-op program into its

basic structure from the very beginning. That is why it is not

duplicated elsewhere. My point is to examine the principles from

the Waterloo program and to see how they could be applied in New

Zealand, to improve our internship programs.

One principle I take away from Waterloo is that the program has

direct benefits for business, not just the student.

Often here in NZ, our internships are student focused and

many employers, as good citizens, hire interns to support our young

people. For example, the university intern office will call

potential employers and try to figure out a project they could do.

Many interns are connected to employers in an ad-hoc way and through

personal contacts. Meeting business needs often seems like a

secondary effect of the internships. For example, companies will

end up hiring some of the students they first met through the

internship program.

I have been in that position of hiring interns in New Zealand.

Here is my experience, as an employer, hiring Waterloo students.

Several years ago, I was the manager of testing when my manager

asked me to find staff to test a surge of hardware, firmware and

software releases coming up. Most of our testing was manual and

exploratory. I had a small staff of testers but I needed some

quick-study, tech-savvy testers for a short period of time, without

increasing permanent staff.

I thought immediately of hiring student interns - they would be

smart, eager and bring energy to the team. I needed interns

available now (ie to line up with my deadlines), and I needed them 5

days a week, 7.5 hours a day to work and learn as the complicated

business of testing progressed and so they could work along side the


From experience, I expected them to take them 3 weeks to contribute

as much as we had to give to them to train them, and 6 weeks to be

making substantial contributions.

From a business point of view, I was looking for interns who were

  1. available any time of the year</li>

  2. available every working day of the week</li>

  3. smart, motivated and trained</li>

  4. were easy to find and hire</li>

I looked for an intern program in New Zealand that met these

business needs, but found none. This was why, I entitled my

presentation to Lincoln

University "Please help me hire Lincoln Students"!

To meet my business needs, I instead went to the University of Waterloo coop

program, which has 5,200 employers and 19,000 students. 900 of

these students work overseas, such as in New Zealand. Here is how the process worked for me, as an employer.

Online, I looked up the hiring schedule. Students would be available

every four months ( Jan 1, May 1, Sept 1) for 4 months. By the

appointed date, I signed up for the program, and submitted my job


Students scanned all the open positions and checked the ones they

were interested in.

I then was given a list of all interested students. Here is the

amazing part for me, as an employer. For each student interested,

I could view

  1. report card with all marks

  2. reports from previous employers

  3. cover letter, if they wrote it

  4. CV

I was pretty sure who I was looking for: no failing grades, not

their first work term, stay away from straight-A grades, express

interest in my job, relevant courses, and good reports from previous

employers. From the complete list I selected the 15 I wanted to

interview. I liked it because I had all the info I needed - this was

quick and efficient process for me.

Next I chose the 2 days I wanted to interview.

The first time I did this process, I tried using skype, but it was

not satisfactory. Waterloo is extremely competitive - there are may

employers there hiring and not being there in person was a serious

disadvantage. Luckily I did one person to apply and take a chance

and she was great. Thereafter I went in person to interview and I

learnt pretty quickly ways to be competitive with other businesses


The interview process is remarkable too. Here is how I did it.

I went to the coop building where I was greeted and given an

employer-bundle of information including my interview schedule for

the day. I looked in the first floor and it was full of rows of

seats, full of extremely well dressed students watching the monitor

at the front of the room, showing the next appointment.

The first thing I did, was to present a slide presentation about my

job, location and company to all my candidates before individual


For the rest of the day, I sat in my office in the co-op building

with a red button on the wall.

Every 30 minutes, at the appointed time, I pushed the red button and

the student arrived. I interviewed them for 30 minutes. After they

left, I pushed the button again to see the next student.

These were remarkable interviews in several ways. The students had

all taken training in being interviewed. They were extremely good

at interviewing. They were dressed smartly and handled all

conventional questions with aplomb. I learned to ask questions that

got to the characteristics I was looking for ( critical thinking,

problem solving, technical smarts, etc).

This is another benefit of this co-op program. Not only were these

students professional in their skills, they were also professional

in their interviewing. By the time they graduate, most students had

probably been interviewed 50 times or more!

At the end of the interviews, I was given a sheet of paper to rank

the students from 1 to N. and to mark the students that were a

definite "no". Of course the students at the end of the interviews,

also ranked all the jobs from 1 to N.

Then the ranking program was run and the best matches found. This

matching is contractually binding. No backing out.

That is how I hired some of the best interns I have ever hired. They

were, as promised, sharp, self-motivated and brought lots of new

ideas to the team.

I was impressed by the system. As an employer, I knew what I had to

do, when to do it, and I was given all the information I needed at

every step of the way. I could plan my intern staffing ( 4 months

ahead). The cycle kept repeating. The regularity made it easier for

me to communicate plans to my managers and plan my work.

What were the disadvantages from my point of view? Obviously the


Because these students were coming from Canada, they had additional

costs and visa issues we had to deal with. In Canada, most co-op

students return multiple work terms.

This allows me as an employer to hire a student for 4 months, hire

another for the next 4 months, and then the first student returns

for the next 4 months, etc. This way I have experienced students,

with no startup costs, most of the time.

Because our work was complex, we did feel that a 6 month term would

give us a better ROI than 4 months.

Because the students were not local, we did not end up hiring any of

them full time. Having local students would have given us a better

chance to use the work term as part of our interview process for

full time work.

All in all, the advantages outweighed the disadvantages for these

releases. My release goals were met. And I am still in touch with

many of them.

Part 3

New Zealand students and our businesses are competing in a world

wide market. World-class internships here will retain talented

students and provide a talent pool for local world wide tech


Can we upgrade our NZ internship programs? I think so.

Internships in NZ currently are often seen as altruistic

contributions to young people and universities. Instead, let's tap

young peoples' talents and skills, and create a program that pays

its own way, for business.

We already have Christchurch companies hiring interns

internationally. Let's make it easier to hire locally.

It would be cool to have an internship program that paid interns

enough to offset most of their school costs.

Interns should be able to earn professional salaries. Businesses

could pay interns more if it were shown interns contributed that

value to the company bottom line. Professional salaries will

attract more interns.

Businesses often have need for talented young people all year round,

all day - not just in summer holidays or 20 hours a week.

Everyone is busy at work. Let's streamline the intern hiring process

and then measure its success rate.

Next Steps

Here are a few suggestions to improve internship programs in NZ

  1. Poll our businesses to find out how best to meet their business needs via interns. Get more data focused on real business needs.

  2. We have so many talented, motivated students. Make it efficient for businesses to find the right student for them. Set up one stop shopping , streamlined process, to make it easy for business to find the right interns for them, on a yearly schedule, that meets business needs. Measure the success of this,

  3. One idea, instead of setting up a real co-op program is to set up a sandwich-year for working. This would not disrupt academic schedules and would give interns time to focus 100% on work when they are there. The sandwich year would be after their 2nd or 3rd year, it would be for credit and they would pay tuition fees for this. The employers would give the grade for this year, as part of their academic record and CV.

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