June 8, 2010
Insight from a metal fabricator and the head of Kansas State's Advanced Manufacturing Institute provides companies with good tips for setting up an internship program.
Mention the word “intern” to most any business owner, and the first phrase that may jump into his or her head is “free labor.” That’s unfortunate thinking, however, because interns can mean so much more to a company.
In the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2008 Experiential Education Survey, employers reported that nearly 36 percent of new college graduates hired in 2007 came from their own internship programs. That number was an increase over the 30 percent hired in 2005. Manufacturers should take note, because of the 311 NACE company members that responded to the survey, almost half were from manufacturing organizations.
The survey also showed that 90 percent of employers who use their internship programs to hire say they are very or extremely satisfied with their young hires. Those former interns also have a much higher chance of sticking around after a year than those new hires that weren’t part of the internship program.
The Advanced Manufacturing Institute (AMI) of Kansas State University, Manhattan, Kan., has had great success with its internship program. The organization, which was started in the mid-1990s with the intent of creating an environment where engineering students could work with mentors on projects that benefited small and medium-sized manufacturers, has had about 450 interns come through the program since 1995, according to Brad Kramer, AMI’s director.
Today the program is not just for engineering students. AMI is also including students who are looking for experience in marketing, communications, and business. Kramer said that no matter what their educational background, however, the interns are getting a great experience in terms of professionalism and problem-solving as they work on manufacturing clients’ product or process development projects.
“It’s that mentored experience where you get to work alongside somebody that knows what they are doing, and that really takes the edge off, polishes them up, and makes them well-prepared to start working a lot sooner than somebody that just graduated from college with little experience,” Kramer said.
Teresa Beach-Shelow, owner of Superior Joining Technologies Inc., Machesney Park, Ill., told the story of one former intern who worked for her while he studied at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill. He had shown some interest in manufacturing engineering while working for Superior Joining Technologies, but later decided to study electrical engineering. Upon graduation, he got a job with an aerospace components manufacturer in Rockford, Ill.
“Everyone at [the company] couldn’t believe that he had just graduated from college,” Beach-Shelow said proudly. “He knew how to handle a meeting, negotiate with other engineers, and he was confident enough to bring forth ideas.”
Superior Joining Technologies is another firm that has found success finding employees in its part-time work force. Of the company’s 17 full-time employees, five of them started working part-time or as an intern.
The benefits of an internship program, such as low-cost labor and grooming possible future employees, are pretty obvious. So what’s the benefit for these companies that have internship programs, but produce interns that don’t come to work for them? The answers might be contacts, image enhancement, or even new business. As the interns work their way through the engineering offices and shop floors of other companies, they might emerge into positions that can be a positive for the company that formerly hired them as an intern or maybe actually send over the occasional purchase order. Also, the company that is able to develop young leaders for itself or for others emerges as an organization to be admired by peers.
It’s one thing to talk about inviting interns to work in your manufacturing setting; it’s another to actually set up a program. The following tips will help to remove any unanticipated hurdles should you decide to implement such a program.
Plan to Compensate the Intern. With payment comes higher expectations. If the intern is paid, he or she will be more likely to show up every day, take every task more seriously, and produce better work. Sometimes you simply get what you pay for.
Paying the intern also could keep your company out of potentially dangerous legal situations. U.S. courts have ruled that the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 does not excuse a business from using unpaid interns just because they are getting college credit, and as a result, many companies don’t even risk not paying interns.
Define the Job Before You Identify the Intern. The worst thing you can do is have an intern show up for work without having clearly identified work for them to do.
At Superior Joining Technologies, interns may work as a cleanup crew member or count parts before they are shipped. Later on they might run a spot welder or sandblasting equipment. For AMI, the interns work on clients’ projects that match their skill set (see Figure 1).
“It’s sort of like a job interview in the fact that the project managers know the kind of projects that they have coming down the line,” Kramer said. “They are looking for skill sets, but they are also looking for personality traits and for people that will help them deliver results. Our clients pay for the projects that we do. They expect the projects to provide real value and be delivered on time.”
The person creating the program also should consider setting up the basic criteria for the internship. Does the student have to maintain a minimum grade point average? Does the student have to be a particular age? Approximately how many hours will the internship involve? How long will the internship last?
Be Honest With the Intern. Sometimes an intern may think he or she should be doing something that just isn’t possible.
“I have highly skilled welders. So very rarely are [the students] able to do welding. I think that disappoints somebody that’s interested in welding that works here,” Beach-Shelow said.
If the employer is open and honest about what is possible during the internship, the chance for miscommunication and subsequent hard feelings can be averted.
Assign a Mentor to Lead the Intern. If students are to learn professional workplace behavior, they need to interact with professionals (see Figure 2).
At AMI project managers are involved in the interviewing process, so they are paired up with interns right from the beginning. More often than not, these project managers will act as the students’ mentors for their entire tenure at AMI.
Beach-Shelow said her company also looks to identify mentors for the younger workers, but the mentoring isn’t relegated to the shop floor alone.
“If people have to go to another shop, we’ll have them go along so they can see that interaction,” she said. “I outsource a third of my sales and I use a network of subcontractors. Part of our success is being able to understand the process in other facilities and be able to use those processes and to communicate with the people that provide them.
“We see that we give exposure to [these] future engineers.”
Figure out Where You Will Find the Intern. Companies that don’t have a formal working relationship with an educational institution or don’t have the time to foster and manage a new one might find potential intern candidates through simple outreach efforts.
Beach-Shelow said Superior Joining Technologies has had great success finding students who are either part of a robotics team affiliated with a nearby high school; who have attended the company-sponsored summer manufacturing camps; or who have learned of the company through one of the many tours it offers during the year to schools and clubs. The kids with a desire to learn more about manufacturing and technology sometimes prove to be the best interns because they don’t need to be micromanaged and can offer real value to the employer.
“When we bought our CMM [coordinate measuring machine], we didn’t have anyone that knew how to run it. So we had a guy out of high school, and he came, read the manual, and figured out how to run it,” Beach-Shelow said. “Some people are just like that. Actually, we tend to attract those types.”
Keep the Communication Channels Open. Extracting information from a young person is often like extracting the truth from a pathological liar; it’s difficult. However, that shouldn’t stop your company from trying to find out how the internship is going.
Kramer said AMI project managers sit down with the intern after six months and conduct a formal review. After a full year, the intern undergoes a full evaluation, similar to the one used to evaluate full-time employees.
At the end of the AMI internship, an exit interview occurs. The goal at this juncture is to find out what can be done to improve the work experience for other students, Kramer said.
When Kramer was asked about any not-so-obvious benefits to having an internship program, he didn’t hesitate with his answer. He thinks the AMI internship program is changing the way his students are thinking about careers in manufacturing.
For instance, AMI has exposed interns to working with smaller manufacturers, many of which are located in Kansas. Without the internship at AMI, these students may have thought that working just for large companies like Exxon or Cessna was the extent of their postgraduation job opportunities.
“Because of this internship, we have seen that more of our students having the AMI internship will stay in the state of Kansas for the first job, and more are considering taking a job with small to medium-sized manufacturers,” Kramer said.
So an internship program not only can fill the employee ranks of a company, but also replenish the ranks of manufacturing talent leaving industry and heading for retirement. That’s a lesson everyone understands, no matter what their experience level.
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