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Students Advise Execs in Successful Reverse Internship Program

Two businessmen looking at a tablet in an office.

This is the fourth in a five-part series of articles on different training and development programs. This article examines a reverse internship program at RBC Wealth Management-U.S. corporate headquarters.

When Tom Sagissor, president of RBC Wealth Management-U.S., asked a group of his company's interns how many had cellphones, all 27 raised their hands.

How many texted and used Snapchat? All raised their hands.

How many used Twitter? About half raised their hands.

How many used voice mail? Three raised their hands; the rest hadn't even set up it up on their phones.

Sagissor, who is 49, was astounded.

"I don't feel that far removed [in age from them], and I use voice mail all the time," he told SHRM Online.

His informal findings illustrated the insights he gained from college students from around the U.S. who are participating in RBC's reverse internship program. The 10-week program, which launched June 2017 at the global financial services company's U.S. headquarters in Minneapolis, is Sagissor's brainchild.

"Our industry, like most others, is constantly adapting to the rapid pace of change brought on by new technology, new kinds of competitors and a new kind of client that consumes our services differently than any other generation we've served," Sagissor said in a news release.

The company realized it did not have any subject matter experts on Millennials and other younger generations. While RBC's staff includes Millennials, they are scattered throughout the company's U.S. offices.

"By re-designing our summer internship program to really tap into the talent, unique perspectives and brainpower of the young people who participate [in the internship], we think we can not only give them a better experience but gain valuable insights for our business."

Interns at RBC have access to senior leaders throughout the program, which ends in August. HR administers the program. It's modeled around the concept of reverse mentoring, which typically pairs younger employees with executives to help those executives with such things as trends in social media, according to an April 2017 HR Magazine article.

[SHRM members-only HR form: Model Work-Study Internship Program]

In addition to their day-to-day duties that are supervised by a direct manager, paid interns such as Eleanor Blum—a sophomore at Harvard studying applied mathematics—work in small teams on a project designed to help find solutions to specific challenges facing RBC.

Blum's team, made up of interns in HR, IT and business initiatives, is collecting and analyzing information on how the company views itself in relation to Millennials. All of the teams will give a 25-minute presentation to senior executives. RBC will reward team members for any solution the company initiates or implements, Sagissor said. Possible rewards, he said, might include money, another internship or a scholarship.

"It's really important that companies don't dismiss these students," said Lauren Berger, self-described "Intern Queen" and CEO and founder of Los Angeles- based, a free online internship site. "Both the interns and executives have a lot to learn from one another, and companies that recognize that—and not only recognize it but put into action programs that encourage that dialogue and conversation—are definitely ahead of the game."

She had 15 internships in four years by the time she graduated in 2006 from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor's degree in organizational business communications.

Berger is the author of All Work, No Pay: Finding an Internship, Building Your Resume, Making Connections, and Gaining Job Experience (Ten Speed Press, 2012) and Welcome to the Real World: Finding Your Place, Perfecting Your Work, and Turning Your Job into Your Dream Career (HarperBusiness, 2014). 

A lot of companies incorporate parts of the reverse-internship concept, Berger said, by giving students projects and inviting them to participate in brainstorming sessions where they may make recommendations to senior leaders.

Regular feedback is important, she advised, and at minimum should occur two weeks into the internship, at the half-way mark, and as the internship concludes. Additionally, include interns in nonconfidential meetings and conference calls. Preface the call or meeting with a two-minute introduction to provide context for the intern, with an opportunity for him or her to ask questions afterward.

RBC's reverse-internship project falls in line with the 15 internship best practices that the National Association of Colleges and Employers' Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition recommends to employers, which include:

  • Provide interns with real work assignments.
  • Appoint an intern manager.
  • Showcase intern work through presentations.  
  • Encourage team involvement.

Her project, Blum said, gives her a feeling that she is "putting together something that will add value to the company."

"They're very willing to think to the future and think of themselves differently than they have in the past," she said of RBC leaders.

Blum noted that her experience interning in the company's portfolio analysis group—which supports RBC's financial advisors—and working on the team project has validated her interest in pursuing a career in financial services.

"They've convinced me," she said, that "there are real contributions young people can make [in this field]." 

Read the firstsecond and third installments of this series. The fifth and last part of this series looks at an online academy of four four-week courses designed for entry-level Ben & Jerry's employees who are ages18-24.

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