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Are interns actually useful?

Reuters/Jason Cohn
Is it all low-wage labor?
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

This question originally appeared on Quora: How much do interns contribute to the growth of a tech company? Answer by Gayle Laakmann McDowell, acquisition interview consultant.

How much do interns contribute to the growth of a tech company? Negatively. 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 impactful] 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 assign any really valuable work to a full-time employee.

Next, of course, are all the expenses that go 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 gotten involved in 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, to thus reduce 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 (companies would already be hiring their full-time employees looking for short-term and long-term impact if they didn’t believe there was a trade-off). It doesn’t really make sense to design a new interview process to increase productivity for three months and sacrifice the full-time potential.

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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