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  • Writer's pictureIan Wells

World Competitive NZ internships: Direct value to business

This is the second in a series of posts looking internship programs in New Zealand and how they compare to world-wide competition.

In my previous post, ¬†I described the University of Waterloo co-op program from the students‚Äô point of view. Waterloo is interesting to look at because it is ¬† ‚Äúworld-class‚ÄĚ ¬†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 ‚Äď 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 ‚Äď 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 engineers.

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

available any time of the yearavailable every working day of the weeksmart, motivated and trainedwere easy to find and hire

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 ‚ÄúPlease help me hire Lincoln Students‚ÄĚ!

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 description.

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

report card with all marksreports from previous employerscover letter, if they wrote itCV

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 ‚Äď 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 ¬†‚Äď 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 there.

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 interviews.

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 ‚Äúno‚ÄĚ. ¬†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 distance.

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.

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