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Implementing A Successful Internship Program

MHEDA members share the pros and cons of instituting an internship program
By Steve Guglielmo

internsFor college students, internships are an outstanding way to take the theoretical lessons they have learned in class and apply them to a real live business situation. Many times, internships and co-ops are these students’ first foray into the “real world.” However, it is not just students who can benefit from these programs. Internships are an excellent way for companies to groom potential full-time employees without having to make that commitment right away. They are also a place where employers can experiment with new positions to see if a full-time position is necessary.

Under the “careers” tab on MHEDA.org, there is an article entitled “Structuring Effective Internship Programs,” by Malini Natarajarathinam & Sudarsan Rangan of Texas A&M University. The article discusses the differences between the stereotypical internship, where the intern does paper work or brews coffee, and an effective internship that serves both the intern and the company.

“Providing a good internship experience is very important to employers. Internships do not just provide a student with experience for the summer, but a well-planned and structured internship is an extended job interview to hire good candidates: candidates with training. As with any job interview, the interviewing method has to be effective such that the various skills and talents of the candidates can be assessed. This is true in the case of an effective internship as well. The candidate should be provided the opportunity to exhibit various skills.”

Grooming Successful Employees
*Editor’s note: Bob Walker passed away on April 27, 2013. Before his passing, Bob was gracious enough to speak to The MHEDA Journal about Santana Equipment Trading Company’s Internship and Management Trainee Programs. In Bob’s two years as Director of Marketing and Public Relations for Santana, he restructured the company’s internship program to above-industry standards. He was extremely proud and passionate about the program and the interns that he worked with. Bob was a great man and a beloved colleague and mentor who will be missed by all who knew him. For a full obituary and to learn more about Bob’s legacy, please turn to page 72.

Ten years ago, Eric Davidson implemented an internship and management trainee program at Santana Equipment Trading Company (Gurnee, IL). The program focused on working with local college students and bringing them into the company to learn the ins and outs of sales, marketing, working with databases and many other areas of the company. One of the aims of the program was to groom successful employees who would come back to Santana full-time after graduation.
Fast-forward to today and Santana has one of the most successful internship and management trainee programs in the industry. Many of the company’s key management personnel are alumni of these programs. They include Director of Operations Matt McKinney, Senior District Sales Manager Nate Service, District Sales Manager Angel Acosta and Marketing Manager Alex Stuckey.

“If you want to really mold or develop high-quality employees, you have to teach them about your business,” said Walker. “They will be successful once they learn how to do all of the business. It will also be better for the company. If everybody in the company knows that you have to adopt that person to be successful, then it creates a team-oriented environment. We’re a very familial organization with a lot of team training.”
One thing that Davidson and Walker stress is that interns should never be afraid to share new ideas. As a matter of fact, Walker instituted an idea of the month program, which encourages employees to share ideas that can help improve the company.

“We’re always looking for new ideas,” Walker said. “We tell the interns, ‘If you think we can be doing something better, tell us in our meetings.’ It’s all part of working together as a team because in the end if one of us is successful, the whole company is successful.”

As Santana expanded its operation last year to include a new branch in Phoenix, AZ, they have also begun expanding the reaches of its internship and management trainee programs.

“In the past we were just looking for talent out of the Chicago area,” Walker notes. “Now what we’re doing is looking at other top-quality schools like the University of Kentucky, the University of Tennessee and Texas A & M. If we find a top quality candidate from outside of the Chicago area, we will pay for them to come to Chicago to work at the company for the summer. We are looking for the best candidates because we want this to be a long-term partnership.”
For more information about Santana Equipment Trading Company, visit the company website at www.santanaequipment.com.

Not Just “Cheap Labor”
When MatHand President Connie Costner began an internship program in 2008, she did so for two reasons. First, the company needed a draftsman.

“We needed somebody part time. I knew I could be flexible with the hours, so I thought we could try a college student out because an adult would probably be looking for full-time work,” says Costner.

But beyond that need was a sense of community service that Costner could provide by hiring interns from local colleges.

“We always help our college students find jobs after their internship,” she says. “I write them a good letter of recommendation and even help them network within our industry or similar industries. We even had one intern who couldn’t afford nice clothes for interviews. So we went out and bought her an interviewing suit. In addition to the work, we feel like it’s a kind of community service effort.”

But there were obstacles to overcome along the way. Costner was taken aback by the amount of supervision that many interns needed.

“It takes a lot more time than you think it will,” says Costner to companies considering starting their own internship program. “There’s a lot of hand-holding. They seem to have a lot of book knowledge but can’t always transfer that into working knowledge.”

Costner also warns against considering interns as cheap or even free labor.

“You have to treat them like you do your full-time employees, and that means paying them and including them in staff meetings and training sessions,” she says.

An added benefit that MatHand has realized from these programs is the ability to test the waters for new projects or positions with interns.

“If we have a creative idea, like instituting a new social media policy, for example, we can hire an intern to see if it is a position that needs to be full-time, or if it is something that can be done in 20 hours per week or less,” she says. “It’s a way to test the waters without being liable for any kind of unemployment claim.”

For more information about MatHand, Inc., visit the company website at www.mathand.net.

Providing Structure
SpeedCell Storage Solutions just started their internship program last October. The supplier hired two interns, one to work in the graphic design portion of the sales office and the other to help out as an inside salesperson.

“One of the main reasons for starting this program is that we’re a young division of our corporation,” says J.W. Jones, Director of Sales & Marketing. “We’re trying to understand what skillsets are missing in our company and how we can possibly develop these interns into a person that we can hire long-term.”

Jones understands that members of Generation Y are soon going to be in charge of purchasing decisions.

“It brings a fresh perspective, and I think that’s very important,” Jones says.

However, after two semesters of running the company’s internship program, Jones has already discovered something that he would like to improve going forward.

“We are a pretty progressive company,” he notes. “We want our interns to work 15-20 hours per week on average and we aren’t particular about how they do it. It can be done in two days a week or five.”

All of that flexibility can actually be a bad thing in cases.

“I would like to be a little bit more rigid than we currently are,” he says. “Corporate is very flexible. But if you give young people too many options, sometimes it paralyzes them because they aren’t sure what to do. They’re so worried about doing something wrong, that sometimes they don’t do anything at all. They’re very afraid to make mistakes.”

Jones realized that expectations from both sides should be clearly communicated at the beginning of the program.

“When we’re interviewing for our next set of interns, we will set more rigid guidelines that outline exactly the objectives that we have to accomplish,” he says. “And then we will ask the applicant, ‘What do you want to gain? What do you think you will learn in this position?’ We want to make sure that we have structure and a clearly defined time table for achieving those objectives.”

For more information about SpeedCell Storage Solutions, visit the company website at www.ifrinc.com/speedcell/

A Different Perspective
META Storage Solutions is a German company that recently opened up a U.S. subsidiary in Suwanee, GA. While the company does not have an internship or co-op program in the United States yet, it has a well-established internship and apprenticeship program in Germany.

President and CEO Oliver Bleich will look to apply the principles of the German programs to his U.S. internship program when he establishes it.

“Internship programs are great opportunities to test the waters, both for the company and for the interns,” Bleich says. “From the perspective of the company, when you’re looking to expand and grow your business, you can pre-select from your pool of interns to do so. This can eliminate the costly recruiting and interviewing process. It’s not a long-term commitment and it gives you a good opportunity to get to know people.”

In Germany, many high school graduates work in apprenticeship programs. These programs typically last three years or longer and immerse the apprentice in all facets and departments of a company. While META USA may not be able to hire three-year long apprentices, it does want to lay the groundwork for possible co-op or multiple semester internship programs in collaboration with a local technical college.

“You want these people to stay with your company,” he says. “You’ve trained them, they know your culture, they know your company and they know your product. It’s an expensive process if you don’t intend to keep them on long-term.”

As the market continues to evolve, Bleich sees internship and co-op programs as increasingly important.

“It’s going to be very important for the market to embrace these types of programs going forward, because production and administration are going to be more challenging in the future. The work force has to be more educated as products and processes become more elaborate and demanding. There is more technology involved and more tasks have to be performed by the same person. Companies need to be able to rely on certain skills that employees bring to the table without having to go through an expensive test phase with them first.”

For more information about META Storage Solutions, visit the company website at www.meta-online.com.