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Small business learn to walk the internship tightrope

College help may be cheap, but companies may find interns to be more hassle than they're worth -- especially if they spend their time grousing about their relationships

NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

She seemed the perfect fit. About a year and a half ago, managers at Slack Barshinger, a Chicago advertising agency, hired a recent graduate of a local college for a paid three-month internship.

She did just fine -- until the first month went by. That's when she started moping around the office, spending much of her time complaining about her tumultuous romance.

Supervisors tried to tell her the facts of work life.

"We explained that you can't walk into a meeting crying about your boyfriend," said Dana Kessler, senior account manager. "We talked about appropriate behavior and solutions that would work."

When the behavior continued, Kessler talked to the intern again -- and then again.

"It got to the point that we couldn't put her in front of a client, or even a senior member of the team, because her behavior was so unpredictable," Kessler said.

When the three months ended, the intern -- who had wanted a full-time job -- was not asked to return.

It is hardly a secret that interns come cheaper than full-time employees, making them especially attractive to small businesses, and demand for them has been growing in recent years.

The number of students at New York University who have accepted internships has risen by about 20 percent over the past year and a half, according to Trudy Steinfeld, director of the school's office of career services, and other colleges and universities report a similar trend.

New research

A recent study by the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, found that for the third year in a row, employers cited internship programs as the No.1 way to recruit recent college graduates, up from seventh place in 1998.

But hiring college students as interns does carry risks. They can show up late for work, answer phone calls with insufficient grace and let school assignments get in the way of their job duties.

"There are a lot of hidden costs," said Elizabeth Saunders, chairman and co-founder of Ashton Partners, an investor relations firm in Chicago, which has one paid intern on staff.

And while such transgressions are usually little more than inconveniences, they can have more serious consequences. In 1995, Marty Kotis, chief executive of Kotis Properties, a real-estate firm in Greensboro, North Carolina, let a new intern sit in as a reporter for a local newspaper interviewed him.

When the story appeared, Kotis was taken aback by its negative tone. He later found out that the intern, who had been sitting out of his line of vision, had been rolling her eyes at many of the reporter's questions.

"She told me she was offended by the way the intern acted," he said.

One of the trickiest tasks for employers is sizing up an intern's level of competence. Joyce Gioia, president of the Herman Group, a management consulting company in Greensboro that specializes in trend forecasting, once hired a college student who claimed bookkeeping expertise. But when she checked the intern's work, "everything was a mess," she said. "The numbers didn't add up."

Gioia had to redo the books from scratch. After that, "We learned to hire interns for filing the bookkeeping, not for doing it themselves," she said.

Don't get your hopes up

Unrealistic expectations for interns seem to be common among small-business owners. Lisa Mackenzie recalls how two years ago she asked an intern at her marketing services firm in Portland, Oregon, to complete a marketing research study on a new technology. After a few weeks, the intern handed in 500 pages of unorganized information.

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