Interns on the Payroll

When companies bring interns into the mix, both sides gain from the arrangement.

By Roseanne White Geisel Dec 1, 2004

HR Magazine, December 2004

Call them professionals-in-the-making. They’re the students or recent graduates hired for a summer or a semester to serve as interns in companies and organizations throughout the country. HR managers who help bring them on board and monitor their work say they’re smart, motivated and hardworking, and that they contribute significantly while they’re learning on the job.

Interns can help advance company projects that have been back-burnered for lack of regular employees’ time, experts say. They also can energize a workplace with their enthusiasm for the business and, despite their inexperience, can even supply an expertise of their own—such as familiarity with the latest technologies. And in many companies, the best of them come to be regarded as promising potential candidates for full-time positions.

Amy Van Kirk, director of national campus recruiting for the U.S. operations of PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the New York-based accounting and consulting company, says that “interns are probably the key” to developing a high-quality workforce.

Having an internship program can be one of the biggest pluses for a company, some experts say, because it can help HR in its mission of making sure the company hires the best and the brightest. Such a program can raise a company’s profile among students on the campuses from which it draws interns, it can keep the company’s name in front of colleges’ career officers, and thus it can keep channels open between employers with jobs to fill and talented graduates looking for full-time employment.

In fact, colleges can be integral in building and maintaining an internship program. Forging a relationship with colleges and uni-versities that can become rich sources of strong candidates is “just like any other business partnership,” says Tom Leonti, a manager for North American Manufacturing Co. Ltd., a Cleveland-based engineering company.

Leonti says he wanted Case Western Reserve University students “to know who we were.” So the company invited the head of Case’s engineering department for a tour to provide a look at company operations and a sense of the types of candidates best-suited for working there. Leonti has hired interns for his combustion-products department and figures other students “would hear good things about North American from their classmates” who had interned there.

Recruiters for Arthur J. Gallagher & Co. Inc., a commercial insurance and reinsurance brokerage headquartered in Itasca, Ill., not only establish relationships with college career centers but also give presentations to insurance, finance and sales classes, says Terry Hennen, director of training and communications.

Allstate Insurance Co. in Northbrook, Ill., develops internship relationships with schools that offer actuarial science programs. It helps keep the insurer visible to hard-to-find actuarial grads looking for full-time jobs, says Wanda Wiebke, Allstate’s director of recruitment and selection.

Internship candidates come not only through college ties, however, but also from employee referrals and word-of-mouth, Wiebke notes. Recruiting tasks, she adds, are shared by the departments that hire interns and by human resources.

Just as in hiring regular employees, so too in bringing interns into the workplace: It requires HR to tailor job descriptions to the company’s needs—but with the aim of assigning interns work that’s beneficial for them and that taps their individual talents as much as possible. HR also can help interview candidates, provide orientation for those who are selected and help evaluate their performance.

Shaping the Program

The cornerstone of a solid internship program is its alignment with the company’s objectives or with those of a particular department. At PwC, for example, each service line submits goals for its interns, and those goals are helpful in the hiring process, says Van Kirk.

PwC has developed an “internship toolkit” for recruiters and mentors. The written materials in the toolkit provide advice on mentoring, conveying best practices, communicating effectively with interns and determining which interns should receive offers for full-time employment.

Another important step in shaping an internship program is to set orientation and training requirements. At many large companies, interns receive both general group orientation and training as well as job-specific training in the departments to which they are assigned.

After interviewing internship candidates on campus, Gallagher brings the best prospects in for another round of interviews at the offices where they would work—whether at headquarters or at other locations. Those interviewed at headquarters meet with about six people, Hennen says. “We’re looking for people who are go-getters.”

Then all interns from all locations are brought in during their second week for training. They hear 20 to 25 presentations by Gallagher staff members, including Chairman Bob Gallagher and President Pat Gallagher.

Orientation and training for new nursing school graduates at Henry Ford Health System, a complex of hospitals and health provider organizations in the Detroit area, is completed in stages. Prior to passing their licensing exams, they are assigned to a dedicated preceptor. “We train and mentor them, and, under close supervision, they begin to deliver patient care,” says Maureen Henson, SPHR, director of employment and recruitment strategies.

Accompanying the mentorship at Henry Ford is a classroom program of four to 10 weeks, depending on each graduate’s experience in health care. The program is produced by the nursing development faculty, which has more than a dozen members and serves three of the health system’s hospitals.

Getting Down to Business

In keeping with their aim of attracting and developing future professionals, companies are giving interns real work to accomplish. In effect, interns these days are not making any more trips to the photocopier than are other employees involved in the core business activities.

The current nursing students or interns at Henry Ford support the nursing unit as patient sitters, Henson says. They stay with patients to assist them with meals or just to make sure they are safe—a particularly important responsibility, especially in the care of homeless or indigent patients who may not have family members or friends visiting. “It gives the students an exposure to the fast pace of a [complex-care] setting in the inner city,” Henson says.

Henry Ford also has interns on the business side of the organization. Henson’s two human resource interns this past fall helped revise the employment application, took part in rewriting and automating job descriptions, and provided logistical support to recruiters. A formal internship program involving Henry Ford’s business functions will be inaugurated in the coming year.

The Gallagher firm also gives interns important work to do. “We really get our interns involved,” says Hennen. Interns spend eight of their nine weeks in the program rotating through various areas of the company. They are assigned every half-day to a different professional “whose job it is to give them a beneficial experience” and teach them best practices, he says. They may accompany staff members on prospecting or service calls, or they may help with proposals, Hennen says.

In fact, Leonti of North American Manufacturing says the work that his firm gives interns during their eight months with the company is part of what attracts them in the first place. “These young people are very, very smart and very aggressive. You have to keep them challenged. When they leave in August, they can talk about the project they’ve worked on,” he says.

Meaningful projects lead to meaningful internships, says Allstate’s Wiebke. Interns are used in all departments during their 10 weeks with the company, she says, and each is assigned to a project or a team. “Some departments really value [the interns] because of the skill sets the interns bring,” she adds.

Noteworthy among those skill sets, experts say, are interns’ abilities in information technology and other technical specialties. They arrive for internship duties with the benefit of up-to-the-minute classroom teaching in such areas. Says Henson: “Interns bring the latest computer skills.”

Henson adds that interns also bring another helpful quality—the perspective of their generation. Managers on the business side of the Henry Ford organization, she says, can gain a lot by dealing with, and thereby learning about, members of Generation X (born from 1968 to 1979, after the baby boomers) and Generation Y (approximately 1980 to 1995). Members of those generations, she says, need more-immediate gratification, a greater sense of accomplishment for their work. “Their expectations are different, and yet they bring such incredible talent and imagination to the job,” Henson says. And although young interns in those brackets may have to be coached sometimes on corporate etiquette, she says, they bring good critical thinking skills into the workplace.

Wrapping It Up And Moving On

As internships draw to a close, performance evaluations must be completed. Many companies rely on a formal procedure. For example, everyone who works with a Gallagher intern in a given week completes a 24-question evaluation form in addition to a schedule on which the intern’s activities are logged.

At Allstate, each intern is evaluated by someone in the department where he or she worked, and the type of evaluation depends on the intern’s assignment. Evaluations of interns are briefer than those for full-time employees, Wiebke notes.

Because North American Manufac-turing has at most only a few interns at any time, Leonti likes to go over the engineering school’s evaluation form with each student in person. “I like to give them some pointers,” he says.

Generally, colleges that require students to serve internships are then involved in evaluations of the students’ performance in the workplace. When colleges do not get involved in evaluations, however, supervisors’ evaluations of interns remain within the company and are not sent to the interns’ colleges.

The next step at some companies with internship programs is to decide who gets offers for full-time employment. About 85 percent of the members of each intern class at PwC receive offers, and 90 percent of those who get offers accept them, Van Kirk says. At the Gallagher firm, about 50 percent receive job offers.

The HR Connection

From finding, hiring, training and evaluating interns to identifying those who eventually could join the company full time, HR plays a major role in internship programs. Yet HR managers typically say they do not consider handling internship tasks a burdensome increase in their workload. Rather, they view it as one of HR’s integral functions. “It’s part of what we do in recruiting,” says Van Kirk.

And having interns in the workplace can boost employees’ spirits, says Hennen. “People like to see a college person get turned on to the business.”

There’s also the bonus of training a potential full-time employee in everything from corporate culture to client service. HR managers say those who have interned at the company are much more comfortable in the corporate environment when they start full time.

Says Henson at Henry Ford: “It serves industry well to bring in talent, develop them, mentor them and expose them to various pieces of the workplace. We end up learning from them as well.”

Roseanne White Geisel is a freelance business writer and editor in Arlington, Va.

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