LOS ANGELES — Remember the days when being an intern meant sorting mail, fetching coffee, and babysitting the photocopier?
You were the lowest of the low. You did what you were told, when you were told - often for little or no pay - all in the name of "experience."
Those days are fading fast.
With the lycra-tight labor market, companies of all sizes are courting interns with big bucks, company cars, gym memberships, dinners with the CEO - even field trips.
Accounting firm Ernst & Young earlier this month flew 900 of its interns to Disney World for a three-day "leadership conference." The firm chairman even opened the conference with a 20-minute talk.
"Intern recruiting today is almost as competitive as full-time recruiting," says Mike Wilk, national director of recruiting at Ernst & Young, which has more than doubled its number of interns since the mid-1990s.
"If you don't recruit through internships," he says, "there will be an awful lot of very good people who will be gone from the marketplace before you begin recruiting [on campus]."
The company is hardly alone.
For many businesses, interns have become a key source of tapping top talent early. In fact, many companies now extend full-time offers to students at the end of the summer.
IBM, for example, which hired 3,400 student interns nationwide this summer, culls 40 percent of its total new-college hires from its intern pool.
Some companies even argue that hiring interns full time guarantees a better cultural fit - and that reduces turnover.
To help interns sign on early, companies are rolling out the red carpet. They're assigning interns to top projects and accounts, upping paychecks, and handing out plenty of perks.
*Andersen Consulting pays its summer interns around $3,000 a month (depending on geographic location).
*Burlington Industries of Greensboro, N.C., picks up "reasonable" travel expenses (such as the cost of a U-Haul) for its 26 interns as well as one week's temporary living. "We don't expect North American Van Lines to pull up in an 18-wheeler," jokes Tony Michaels, director of recruiting.
*IBM launched an elite internship program for 24 students this summer called "Extreme Blue." For nine weeks, interns worked on actual IBM products, working and socializing with company researchers.
A survey last year by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 16 percent of companies handed out housing allowances for undergraduate interns; 12 percent paid for relocation; and 5 percent paid signing bonuses.
Other benefits interns received included movie tickets, 401(k) and health benefits, bike rentals, software discounts, and clothing allowances.
But some worry that students may be basing one of the most important decisions of their lives - where to work - on things that aren't all that important, like a company car.
So what do students think?
Many seem rather nonplussed by the royal treatment. They say what matters most is whom they get to work with and the type of work they get to do.
"For me it wasn't what firm could spend the most money on me. If that was the case I would have gone with a different firm," says Kim Westermann, who interned at Ernst & Young's office in San Jose, Calif.
"It comes down to the people," says Ms. Westermann, who will be a senior this fall at California Polytechnic University at San Luis Obispo. "Who do you want to spend eight to 15 hours a day with?"
Adds Marty Jablonski, who interned in the IT department at Andersen Consulting's office in Northbrook, Ill.: "I was concerned about what I was going to get to do this summer.
"I didn't want someone to say, 'See the company, now go type this spreadsheet.' Perks over the summer are nice and all, but they don't help you decide where you want to work."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society