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Getting the Most Out of an Internship Program

Designing an internship that mutually benefits the student and the company
By Steve Guglielmo

internship pictureOne common refrain heard within the material handling industry is an inability to find and recruit the younger generation, or millennials, into their company. In theory, our industry and millennials should be a match made in heaven. Ours is an industry with a burgeoning need for young talent. And according to the Economic Policy Institute, recent high school and college graduates are unemployed and underemployed at a rate much higher than the national average. For college graduates, the unemployment rate is currently 7.2 percent (compared to 5.5 percent in 2007, before the recession.) The underemployment rate is 14.9 percent (compared to 9.6 percent in 2007.) The numbers are much more dire for high school graduates.

Though certainly not the entire reason but at least part of the reason that this seemingly perfect match has not happened as much as possible is a lack of awareness of the material handling industry and the attractive and potentially lucrative career path it affords. As Clayton Hatten, Texas A&M Industrial Distribution Student and Sunbelt Industrial Trucks 2015 Summer Intern, says, “This isn’t something that I think crosses the normal student’s mind. Sales can take you into a lot of different industries but you don’t really think about forklifts. They’re all around and now that I’m involved I can see how stable this industry is and how much it does have to have offer but prior to this experience, it’s not something that would have ever really crossed my mind.”

These internships, if designed correctly, can be an incredible opportunity for both students and employers. Students get exposure and contacts with people in a vibrant and viable industry, while employers get the benefit of working with a potential job candidate as well as a pipeline into a school like Texas A&M or other Industrial Distribution programs.

Designing an Effective Internship
For an internship to be beneficial, though, it has to be more than the stereotypical “coffee maker, mail deliverer” role.

“This is our third year with an internship program and it has turned into a very good fit for us,” says Sunbelt President Bill Rowan. “We work at making it a good experience for the intern. What we’ve found is that it’s very important to have and develop a plan up front. It can’t just be, ‘Oh, you’re here today, let me see what we can have you do.’”

For Rowan and Sunbelt, there was no magic bullet to designing an effective program. It has been a constant learning experience.

“The first year, I think as much as I had planned it out, I don’t think I had enough planned,” he says. “I went in with the idea that I was only going to take them so far into the sales process and not let them do a ton on their own. Then last year, I realized that we could go further and this year we went even further than that.”

And while a comprehensive training plan is necessary, the details matter almost as much.

“Our first year, I asked our intern what we could have done differently and she told me, ‘Well, I really wish you had told me before I came where to park. The first day I spent half an hour trying to figure that out!’” Rowan says. “It’s not always the big things; sometimes it’s the little things.”

Another suggestion that Rowan has for companies considering starting an internship program of their own is to treat it as an apprenticeship and give interns the full picture, not just the glamorous stuff.

“We actually send our interns through the same training process that our sales staff goes through. They spend a week in the shop, a week in the field with our field technicians and then spend time making calls to gain confidence in the technique and delivery,” he says. “The last few weeks they have been making cold calls on their own in front of customers. We want to provide a real experience. The other day, we had them making cold calls in 100-degree heat. If we wanted to protect them, we would have kept them in the air-conditioned office. But they are trying to decide if sales is a career that they want and so we want them to get the complete experience: good and bad.”

Real World Training
For both Hatten and fellow Texas A&M Industrial Distribution Student Carolyn Perez, this internship was a first foray into the material handling industry. Both were eager to apply what they had learned in school to real-world sales situations.

“This was a lot different than what we were taught in class,” Perez says. “In class, we had a textbook that said, ‘This is what a customer will say and this is how you’re supposed to respond.’ Being out here and cold calling on our own, we’re finding out that they don’t always say what the book says they should. We have to improvise and learn from each experience.”

Says Hatten, “Absolutely. Just adapting to the various responses that you get. Some people are very open to speaking with you and then other people, it was a little bit tougher to get some of their time. It’s just getting over the mindset that if this call doesn’t go well it means you did something wrong. It’s a numbers game and I found it was important to keep reminding myself of that.”

Though neither had any practical sales experience prior to their summer with Sunbelt, both had a notion that they were interested in sales as a career. This internship was an opportunity to see if it was something that they were still interested in pursuing.

“Our degree is Industrial Distribution, so there is supply chain management, logistics and sales,” Perez says. “About a third of graduates from our program go into sales. I really wanted to go into sales and after this experience, I am 100% sure that’s what I want.”

“This definitely solidified my expectation of thinking that sales would be for me,” Hatten says. “That has been the most beneficial aspect of the internship. It’s been a test drive in the industry and I’ve gotten to see that I thought I was a fit and I am a fit and this is definitely something I’m going to pursue.”

Advice for Students and Employers
After a summer spent learning the ropes at Sunbelt, both Clayton and Carolyn, as well as Bill, have advice for students looking for internships and companies looking to fill them.

“I think having a rotational aspect to the internship was beneficial,” Hatten says. “Take the intern through each phase of the company. Be in the warehouse learning operations. Take them through counter sales and inside sales. Just let them experience the different industry paths.”

Rowan suggests having the interns do an end-of-summer project.

“We had our interns work on a project,” he says. “We had them interview every manager in the company and develop a checklist of procedures and processes for everything we do. By the end of the summer, they knew more about the company than anybody as far as how all the different departments work on a day-to-day basis. It’s a meaningful project that helps us as well. At the end of the summer, the interns presented the new “Sunbelt Playbook” to the leadership team and received a standing ovation for their efforts and final project.”

And Perez suggests being a more active presence at the University level.

“Our program puts on a lot of presentations, so it would be really cool if you went and visited the ID programs and engineering programs at universities,” she says. “That would get your name out there for sure. This is such a great industry to work in because it is so stable. I didn’t know anything about forklifts prior to this experience and now I have all of this great experience. I can even change a tire. I just wish more people would have this opportunity.”