Making the most of undergraduate talent – Mid size business and Student Interns

| August 29, 2012

Any business needs to employ good people to be sustainable and to grow, yet recruiting skilled staff is becoming much more of a competitive challenge. Alice Watkins from the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) shares her advice to First 5000 members on working with interns.

As the Baby Boomer generation retires, 30% to 40% of today’s workers will leave the workforce. Due to low birthrates, these people will not be replaced by enough new workers to fill their shoes.

How will medium sized businesses attract the skills they need to survive in this tough market against the higher profiles and budgets of the corporates?

Engaging university students as interns is a cost effective recruitment option often neglected by mid sized businesses. Nurturing professionals during their development years can be a long term skills investment.

Experience at UTS and elsewhere indicates that the majority of interns accept graduate positions with their intern providers. American research showed that 62% of employees recruited from an internship position stayed for at least five years.

Richard White, CEO and Founder of WiseTech Global, a technology development company,  has been taking on interns from UTS since 2000 when his company employed less than 30 people.  White observes that most businesses ‘don’t understand how much there is to gain by getting access to undergraduates and employing undergraduates in the industry process’. In addition to gaining an enthusiastic resource, employers can assimilate interns into their own culture, methods and practices. They can observe interns over time and make an informed decision about offering permanent graduate employment.

Mid sized businesses may think that interns can’t contribute much. However, experienced intern employers like White would disagree. “We don’t give them (interns) learning tasks only. We put them into real commercial situations and give them real world problems and expect of them full professional engagement, and we get it”.

What do First 5000 members have to entice fresh interns compared with the attraction, salary levels and perceived prestige of the established corporates?

In a mid sized business, people are closer to senior management and learn directly from them.  The working environment can be more flexible, offering early responsibility and variety of tasks.  In a smaller team, everyone can contribute ideas that help to shape the business.  The potential of rising to become a big fish in a small pond is a draw card for many students.

How do First 5000 member companies engage with the student community?

The first stop should be the university Careers Service where staff can advise on the type of work interns can do and will promote opportunities to relevant students. There are obvious times over summer and the mid-year break when students are available as interns.  Many students have a flexible enough timetable to work for at least a couple of days per week during semester too.  Some degree programs have specific blocks for intern placements built into the timetable and the Careers Service will advise on the best times to promote positions to these students.

How much does it cost?

Universities will usually promote intern opportunities at nominal or no cost. As far as paying the interns is concerned, the Fair Work Act 2009 should be consulted in conjunction with the Careers Service, as various conditions apply. A good internship is meant to provide a balance between the learning experience for the student, and the working contribution to the employer’s business.  For long term mutual benefits, both parties should treat each other with respect.  All White’s interns are paid or on company funded scholarships.

White’s case is a great example.  He now employs over 300 people.  Many former interns are now employees and some are now in key company positions. Selection via interns and new graduates from UTS remains an integral part of White’s recruitment strategy ‘because it is so successful’.   


Alice Watkins has been involved with internship programs at UTS for over ten years and is currently responsible for SME industry liaison in the UTS Careers Service.

Download the fact sheet on the Fair Work Act and its implications for internships.

Check out our internships video.