California Educational Data Processing Association
The DataBus - Vol. 37, No. 4
June-July, 1997

In Turn? ...Intern!

Staffing: Innovative ideas revealed to supplement stretched IS/IT resources.

Mike Caskey, Stanislaus County Office of Education

Scene 1 (Management Team Meeting): Personnel Department - “When are you going to install our new computers and connect us to the network so we can use e-mail?” IS Department - “We will get to your department in turn, which should be the first part of next week.” Personnel Department - “You told us that last month.” IS Department - “Well, the DNS server crashed and we had to reconstruct; the fiber backbone was severed by some workmen who were building the new meeting room on the West wing;        (fill in the blank)    ...

Scene n: Personnel Department - When are you going to install our new computers and connect us to the network so we can use e-mail?” IS Department - “We will get to your department in turn, which should be the first part of next week.”...

And so it goes...

Ring, Ring, Ring...

“Information Services. Can I help you?”

“Hi. This is Fred from the XYZ School District. Last month we placed an ad in the paper for a network technician and had absolutely no response. I was just wondering whether you were having any difficulty in filling any open positions?”...

And so it goes...

Most of us face similar problems: Mission critical applications; special high-priority projects; year 2000 modifications; keeping the network fully operational. But, the Personnel Department isn’t interested in head crashes. And, surprise-surprise, they shouldn’t have to be. What they are interested in is that they are using old equipment, with outdated software, and still don’t have access to e-mail. Well, maybe the word isn’t interested, but rather frustrated.

And what do you see? You probably see an IS department that is short on staff and long on commitments. The Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE) was facing this very situation: too much work-not enough resource. It looked the same from every angle until a closer examination of the problem pointed out that the tasks that were waiting to be done were typically short-term, one-time, repetitive tasks.

For example, there was a substantial back-log of computers, sitting in boxes, waiting for software and/or network cards to be installed, and then to be connected to the network. Even though there were thirty or forty machines, they all had pretty much the same configuration, and were waiting for the same software to be installed. In other words, the same task was going to be performed thirty or forty times.

Additional full-time staff is costly and difficult to “sell” to superintendents and boards based on thirty or forty short-term tasks. Use of private companies is also expensive. Besides, the question posed by several department heads was, “Isn’t the indirect rate providing funding for Information Services? Why should we have to pay more to have our equipment installed and connected when we already have an Information Services Department?”

After spending four years mastering their subject area, future teachers spend the better part of two semesters as “student teachers”. Those working toward administrative credentials spend a semester or two serving as interns. It occurred to me that a similar program might prove useful in an information services department. Internships are usually short term in nature, and the task list was very top-heavy with short-term tasks. So an old idea resurfaced and started to come to life.

In order to make such an idea viable, it seemed logical to follow the teaching credential model: Install individuals with some mastery of their subject area into functioning positions where those installed can learn and grow, yet at the same time, produce useful results without overly costing or obligating the organization. Where can individuals with limited experience, but with more than a rudimentary knowledge of computers (hardware and software) be found? How about in the computer club or computer science department of your local high school, community college, state college, or university? Would the school be interested in such a partnership? Would there be any interest from the students? The short answer to the last two questions is yes. But, I’m getting ahead of myself.

In order to bring this idea to fruition, several steps were taken. First the problem of having insufficient staff was formally documented with task lists, corresponding estimates for time required to complete each task, and matching the task list estimates to available staff. It wasn’t a shock that the IS Department was overloaded with work, but rather that the problem would get substantially worse before it got better.

The second step was to sell the idea of attacking this problem with an intern program, to the proper individual or individuals. This might be a superintendent, school board, cabinet, management team, or chief business official. It turned out to be a reasonably easy “sell”. The suggestion was made to the cabinet that this program would provide educational opportunity for local students, establish closer partnerships with local schools and colleges, would be relatively inexpensive, and could be terminated at any time without causing a major disruption in the lives of full-time employees.

The third step was to contact local schools and colleges to see whether there was any interest in such a program. The institutions contacted for this particular program were the local community colleges (there are two within 30 miles). In both cases, the computer science program is administered through the Business Division, so the chair of each of the divisions was contacted. The proposal to the colleges was that the student should receive credit (units) for the work performed in accordance with an existing work experience program at that college, and that the student would receive a small stipend. This was agreed upon, and again, in both cases we were referred to a computer science teacher that had a track record helping students find positions.

Once the contact was made and it was determined that there was interest in the program, some sort of “Job Description” was needed so that students could be matched to the available positions. Our approach was to use an existing Job Description prefaced with a cover letter that explained that the successful candidate would perform some, but not all of the duties of the Job Description. Of special note was the duty of assisting customers with hardware and software problems - sort of a “junior” help desk operation. There is, in effect, no Job Description for the functions served by the interns. And, they are not filling vacant positions.

Our next step was the procurement of a list of interested students, interviews with the student candidates, and ultimately selection of the interns. At one college, the computer science teachers recommended the candidates. At the other college, the candidates were solicited via campus bulletins. The interviews were then conducted by an interview panel consisting of SCOE and college personnel. The interviews followed the same format used for all SCOE interviews.

Following selection, the interns were put through a short, but intensive orientation on the Office of Education and the tasks that they would be performing.

The program that has been put into place at the SCOE is designed to provide the equivalent of two full-time junior network technicians to the IS Department. To help ease the administrative load of such a program, a maximum of four interns will be active during any one semester. Each intern is expected to provide around 20 hours per week during normal business hours (half time equivalent), depending on the student’s class schedule. Additionally, the interns are scheduled, when possible, such that at least one intern will be in the office at any one time. This helps the IS Department to provide “help desk” coverage throughout the day. It is expected that an internship will last for a period of six months, and will be coordinated with the semester schedule of the college. Each student will be eligible for a maximum of two internships. Successful candidates must meet the requirements of the work experience (or similar) program that is in place at the school or college attended by the student. If there is no such program at the school or college, suggest they start one. The process used for intern selection very closely follows the hiring procedures used for full-time employees, including filling out a formal application for employment, providing a resume, and going through a formal interview and evaluation.

So, what’s in it for the school or college? The primary benefit to a school is the opportunity to provide access to “real world”, practical experience as part of the curriculum. It is much easier to “place” graduating students with practical experience. The college that provides such work experience opportunities is more attractive to students seeking a career in the technology field.

What does the student get out of this? The intern program is designed to provide the student with an employment experience. The process of building a resume, filing an application, and then going through an interview with a panel, is an experience that many students have never had. It provides an opportunity for the student to learn how to groom and prepare for an interview as well as how to interview. The student receives a couple of units. The student also receives a small stipend. But, probably the biggest benefit is the addition of the work experience to the student’s resume.

An then, of course, what does the district or county office get out of the internship program? In the case of the SCOE, the once daunting back-log of hardware and software installations is almost gone and other projects are now possible. Since there are now several people to answer the “Help Help” calls, the customers are less frustrated. And the cost is very reasonable. The cost of four half-time interns is less than $20,000 per year.

Is there a down side? It is necessary to provide supervision, and that time has to come from somewhere. At the SCOE this amounts to about 8 hours per week. In our experience, we have found that you give up 8 hours per week to gain approximately 60 hours per week of productive time. By the very nature of the program, there is a high turn-over rate. However, the candidates have proven to be productive very quickly. And we can’t forget that it is necessary to provide work space and equipment.

So, what does the SCOE think of this program? Probably the best indicator of success of the program is the acceptance of the interns by all SCOE personnel. The interns are treated by SCOE employees as though they are full-time staff, with the same ability and knowledge level as that which would be expected of full-time staff. The intern program has been budgeted for the next fiscal year. Other staffing alternatives are so expensive that without the intern program, the work simply would not get done. The customers are extremely happy to be able to get a quicker response to questions and problems. The program can be discontinued at any time with minimal disruption of the lives of employees. The program can be set up for many different technology support efforts and it can be designed around your own particular situation.

If you have too much work and not enough staff, I recommend that you look into the possibility of establishing an Intern program. There are many talented and knowledgeable students that will do fine work for you. This is a “deal” in which all participants will come out ahead. You’ll be able to say, “We’ll get to your department in turn, and your department’s turn is now because I’m sending you an Intern.”

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