Internship: Testing Ground for New Recruits

By Dan ryan, Director of Human Resources, and Beth Harvell, Human Resources Coordinator, Smith Seckman Reid, Nashville October 1, 2005

Hiring new engineers can be a lot like getting married. This is a relationship you want to get right the first time. In fact, the number of hours your new employee spends at work will probably be greater than the waking hours he or she spends with a partner. There are specific actions to make the right hire on the first try. And one of the best ways is through internships.

Internship programs give interns outstanding practical experience while providing firms with well-educated temporary help. But with deliberate structure and good planning, these programs can go further and be an opportunity for management to train and evaluate prospects for permanent employment.

The internship gives you daily observation of and interaction with a candidate. You get more than a resume, interview and first impression—you get a “dry run” over a period of weeks or months. But in order for this to happen, you need to make it real.

Real world applications

In other words, allow interns to be integrally involved in the actual work of CAD, site visits, project meetings and project management—and every other job that real engineers do. Interns consigned to grunt work won’t be prepared for engineering. And they won’t be inclined to say nice things about your firm.

At the same time, interns need adequate time to get immersed in your culture. Ten to 12 weeks is about as long as an intern can spare; anything shorter than that doesn’t give interns a true sense of what it’s like to be employed at your firm.

Another part of making the experience real is compensation. Interns who are paid are more accountable for their responsibilities. If the budget cannot support paid internships, see if your program can deliver class credit. But keep in mind that many colleges and universities will give credit only when internships are compensated.

Above all, it’s important to place interns with a variety of professionals—including senior designers, engineers and project managers—and maximize their points of contact with these co-workers. This ensures that they gain many perspectives and meet a large number of existing employees.

In this way, if you end up hiring the intern, he or she can hit the ground running. And an employee who joins the firm knowing people throughout the organization is more deeply committed to the firm “family.” Conversely, you can determine if an intern doesn’t connect with other employees.

In addition to fostering connections between the interns and other employees, provide opportunities for social interaction outside the work environment. This helps you learn about the “total person” and gives the intern a chance to experience others as well.

While firm size likely dictates the number of interns you can support, having several on staff at once gives them the benefit of a support network. And a great way to observe interns’ abilities to work in a group and communicate during a presentation is to have them work together on a “capstone” project.

This instructive tool helps interns learn to build a cohesive team to complete an objective. As an added benefit to your firm, these projects can produce invaluable information that regular staff doesn’t have time to gather, such as research into natural gas prices or a recommendation regarding types of network technology to better connect remote offices.

The capstone project bridges the very familiar territory of research, writing and presentation of the intern’s college setting with the unfamiliar ground of presenting to a room full of experienced professionals who are genuinely interested in and in need of the information collected for the project. But keep in mind that the ultimate goal for the firm is intern evaluation.

The evaluation

As a means of recruiting new employees, your internship program should serve as a period of evaluation, including the ability of the intern to:

  • Learn new skills and knowledge

  • Work with other people

  • Make presentations to others

  • Take on responsibility

  • Fit in with your culture

The professionals with whom the interns are placed should independently evaluate the intern along categories that are important to your hiring strategy and provide a summary of their work product. This information will allow you to compare your interns and gauge performance. The interns, in turn, should evaluate their experience for comparison and for continued program improvement. In fact, the feedback you get from them—and that they give others—is one of the greatest benefits of these programs.

The promotion

Graduates of your program may prove to be great ambassadors for you when they return to campus. But to jump-start interest in your program and ramp up interest, you must actively market your program.

Attend career fairs during the fall and summer on campuses where you recruit, and talk to engineering department heads and engineering professors about guest lecturing for required engineering courses in the spring. Offer to provide a “resident expert,” a senior engineer who visits the school for one week and participates in class with the students and provides training sessions on a variety of subjects.

Two years ago, our Houston office took a hard look at our internship program and decided it could contribute to the training of new engineers and simultaneously serve as a tool to recruit high quality graduates.

The results have been exciting. We had five interns during our first year. During the second year, we had three interns, one of whom was a repeat from the previous year. Of those seven interns, we extended offers to four. This past summer, we had four interns on board.

In the short term, the program has allowed us to confidently identify qualified candidates and extend job offers. Our firm’s reputation has benefited from the positive word-of-mouth by students when they return to campus, making it easy for us fill interview schedules at schools where we recruit. Our intense use and evaluation of interns has resulted in a program that they value.

The long-term benefit of this program is that by employing interns, we have a head start in diversifying our workforce, especially with respect to female engineers. Any edge we can achieve in diversifying our firm in a typically male-dominated industry is good. The intern process also allows us to continue feeding new talent into the firm. We are not immune to the general demographic trend that will see a large percentage of our leadership retire in the coming decades. Having qualified staff members in reserve is our way of keeping the company in a position to grow in the future.