The Globe and Mail: Attract top talent with internships, not jobs

If I had the chance for a business do-over, there are a few things I would change in the launch of my former startup, XYZ Imaging. One that stands out is recruiting. No matter how hard our company tried, it was challenging to attract good, highly skilled people to join our team.

I came to the conclusion – which I stand by today – that when a company is new, has only a handful of employees, and is competing with well-known brands such as Google, or Facebook, it is hard to get noticed.

We knew that if we could get qualified prospects through our door, they would gravitate toward our dynamic high-tech team that could rival those of the bigger brands. The challenge was getting them to the door in the first place. We eventually found some success by networking locally as well as by hiring foreign talent eager to come to Canada.

In the end, though, rather than hiring the very best candidates for the job, we often accepted the best we could find. What I’ve learned since is that for a growing startup, it’s far more effective to advertise projects or research opportunities than jobs.

Why? Because innovation is what attracts up-and-coming talent to high-tech jobs. As a result, there are many programs available to startup companies today to help fill research and development positions – from co-operative education and government-funded First Job programs to subsidized internships. Rather than advertising specific job openings, companies qualify for such programs by describing the pioneering work they do and inviting highly skilled, motivated student researchers to help solve their toughest problems.

There are many benefits to using research internships as a hiring tool for a small startup.

Motivated talent: Employees are often more driven when working in a small, nimble company where they have a hands-on opportunity to contribute to the team in a meaningful way – something a larger company typically doesn’t offer.

Perfect fit: Internship programs offer a large pool of top talent from which program partners and university professors will help companies choose interns with the best skill sets for the job.

Faster hiring: Since internships typically don’t require a commitment beyond several months to a year, interns tend to more readily give a company a try. Once they’re through the door, there’s a strong likelihood they will stay.

Rotating interns: Every year brings a new crop of students and a new opportunity for a business to attract more skilled workers that meet the company’s evolving requirements.

Two Hat Security of Kelowna, B.C., a developer of artificial intelligence software used to protect online communities from bullying, harassment and child exploitation, is an example of a young company benefitting from internships. Frustrated by the difficulty of competing with tech giants for talent, CEO Chris Priebe explained that by connecting with student interns, his business “is tapping into researchers at the top of their respective fields who are not afraid to tackle the impossible.”

Over the next five years, Two Hat is counting on student researchers from the University of Manitoba, Simon Fraser University and Laval University through the Mitacs internship program to further its product development as it tries to make a name for itself in the cybersecurity space.

The importance of finding the right people to help a young company get to the next stage of growth cannot be underestimated. If I still had my company today, I would without a doubt be using internships as a means to get on the radar of top talent. Instead of posting jobs, I would be advertising my projects and research opportunities, and I know that as a result, the traffic through my door would not only increase, but so would the quality of talent.

Eric Bosco is chief business development officer at Mitacs, a national, not-for-profit organization that connects top-level research with private-sector needs.