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Staffing Management: Make It Meaningful, Not Menial

By Kim Fernandez   10/1/2006
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Vol. 2, No. 4

A well-structured internship program can serve as a recruiting tool for outstanding new employees.  

A good internship program can efficiently funnel qualified students into full-time positions.

But successful internship programs don’t result from chance or luck. Companies that have them carefully and deliberately structure the process so that both sides profit.

And while employers admit that good internship programs take quite an investment of time by many people, they say the benefits far outweigh the costs.

The first thing to do when developing internships designed to result in long-term hires, say those who’ve been successful at it, is to craft a structured program. Gone are the days when college kids wandered through the door and were given menial tasks to do for two or three hours a day—making coffee and retrieving dry cleaning don’t qualify as internships these days.

“Structure the internship to provide students with relevant and practical skills that produce results they can take to a future employer,” says Patty Briguglio, president, MMI Associates Inc., Raleigh, N.C. Her public relations and marketing firm has boasted a successful internship program for 12 years that results in nearly 100 percent of interns getting jobs in the industry immediately after college graduation.

MMI Associates hires three to five interns each summer and takes on a few interns during the school semester. “They work hard,” says Briguglio. “They work very hard. They’re given real work to do. They’re expected to write press releases, pitch stories and do all the things that paid staff is doing. And the expectation is that they are to do it with excellence.”

As a result, she says, the company maintains a waiting list of students who want internships there.

Successful Programs

Key Equipment Finance of Superior, Colo., launched its internship program in 2002. Each summer a class of six to nine interns works together in a program the company views as part of its recruiting process.

Robin Van Lant, HR program manager, says Key Equipment Finance solicits internship proposals from its managers several months before the summer class begins, and appropriate proposals are selected by a team that includes the company’s CEO.

“This year, we targeted managers who have had a good track record with interns in the past or who have a lot of work for interns,” says Van Lant. “We had them make proposals.

They have to justify that the work they have is either a large project that’s big enough for an internship or several smaller projects. We don’t approve programs that just have interns shadowing someone day after day.”

Once proposals are finalized, the company begins interviewing interns to start in May. “Our program runs in the summer and there’s a big reason for that,” says Van Lant.

“We want students to be here for a full 40-hour workweek.

They need to really get their hands into a project, and they need to be here for training. Our perception is that bringing someone in one day a week or a few hours every few days isn’t consistent enough to get them really good hands-on training.”

The interns all start on the same day, she says, to develop a strong sense of camaraderie among them—they’re a team for the summer.

KPMG LLP in Woodcliff Lake, N.J., takes a similar approach.

“We start them out first with a week of training where they’re all together at one national site,” says Blane Ruschak, national director of campus recruiting. “That’s a powerful way to send out a message about the importance of networking and meeting people.”

In its 90 offices, KPMG hires about 600 interns for its spring program and 500 each summer, and offers full-time employment to about 98 percent of students who complete the programs. During internships, students are closely supervised while working with clients and on special projects.

Each is assigned to a mentor, who is generally a former intern who is one to two years into full-time employment, and to a performance manager, who evaluates the intern’s work skills throughout the program.

Most CPA students spend five years in college. KPMG generally recruits students between their fourth and fifth years. They’re offered employment at the conclusion of their eight-week internships and return to the company after graduation. Ninety-five percent of interns offered employment with the company accept immediately.

Internships are extremely competitive, says Ruschak, and candidates spend a full day and a half in what is called the “Inside Look” interviewing process, meeting a variety of managers and executives from different departments to see which might be the best fit. At the completion of the program, each intern receives a detailed evaluation of his/her work.

Rigorous Training

Ruschak says one key to KPMG’s successful program is its rigorous week of training, which incorporates technical training, lessons on client relationships, interviewing and communications, and opportunities to ask questions and learn about the company culture and working environment.

“We don’t hire interns to do busywork or client research,” he says. “It’s got to be real experience. They are in our audit department; they’re sent out to clients. And they go through our firm’s normal feedback process.”

That’s also true at New York-based PR firm Manning Selvage & Lee (MS&L), where Human Resources Director Tara Kashanian says a competitive application process and lots of training have made the internship program very popular, with 200 students applying for eight slots each summer.

“We look only at interns who have had some sort of PR experience before, either with a not-for-profit or at an agency,” Kashanian says. “Students can’t just have ‘waiter’ or ‘waitress’ on their resume anymore. They have to have serious experience. And we give them that.”

Of the 200 applicants, 20 are brought to the company in the spring for an “Intern Challenge Day,” which involves meetings with the managing director, a brainstorming session for a client and interviews with managers from different departments. At the close of the day, eight students are chosen for internships to start in early summer.

Interns go through several classes before starting.

They're then assigned to real clients for day-to-day account work, and all eight are teamed during the summer to develop a large client PR plan for the following year. They wind up by presenting that plan to company executives and the client.

"They think they're going to do this presentation to applause," Kashanian says. "But at the end, they're peppered with questions and really challenged. [Afterward] our CEO asks who among them got a different perspective of the business because of this internship. They all raise their hands."

MS&L generally hires two of its interns each summer for full-time work, but the number varies with the positions that might be open. "I stay in touch with all of them," Kashanian says. "And some of them come back to us later.

We look forward to hiring them if there's an opening." At KPMG, interns receive more than simple job training. They're also taught what is and isn't appropriate in the business world.

"We do a class on dining etiquette and a fashion show," says Ruschak. "We have a runway built on stage and use our recruiters as models to show eight 'do's' and eight 'don'ts.' As fun as it is, they really take it all in and learn what's appropriate."

The dining class teaches such things as whether to order a cocktail when dining with a client, how to order and what to do about the check. "It's surprising how many people don't know the basics.what a bread plate is," says Ruschak. "This gets them feeling comfortable and lets them know how to handle themselves that first week. At the end of the internship, we take them out with a client for lunch and give them the opportunity to practice."

The same is true of the lessons on what to wear to work.

"The business look, everyone gets," says Ruschak. "They know it's a suit or a nice dress. When you get to business casual, they really are confused. There are so many looks out there, and they vary geographically."

Partnerships with Colleges

One of the keys to a successful internship program, say employers, is recruiting at colleges and universities. That sometimes means setting up partnerships and knowing with whom to talk to spread the company's reputation on campus.

"One of the first things we did was go out and meet with professors who provide guidance for interns," says MMI Associates' Briguglio. "After we did one or two internships and the students provided feedback, they knew what a good internship we provide. And now, they send us their best students."

That's a good thing, especially for a company that has several universities nearby. "You can throw a rock and hit UNC [University of North Carolina], Duke [and] NC State," says Briguglio.

Key Equipment Finance established a partnership with the University of Colorado at Boulder to bring its best and brightest juniors and seniors to the company. The company works closely with faculty in the business school and the diversity affairs office to identify students for internships and also posts notices on the school's main job board.

MS&L works with schools as far away as Howard University in Washington, D.C., to identify potential interns.

"More schools are catching on," says Kashanian. "We got a ton of applications from Indiana University this year."

KPMG also recruits nationwide for its program and is careful to schedule events for prospective interns that not only explain the work they'll do, but also give them a taste of the corporate culture as well.

"You're joining a firm," says Ruschak. "You want to know that you'll fit into that culture."

Kim Fernandez is a freelance writer in Bethesda, Md.

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