Crafting the Ultimate Internship

Photo By
Hannah Ziegeler

When regional organizations provide excellent internship experiences, everyone benefits.

Between the region’s nine colleges and universities, nearly 43,000 students step onto campus each academic year in Southwest Michigan. These students gain vital experiences in their years spent at these institutions, but classroom learning isn’t always enough to prepare them to launch straight into a career upon graduation. Internships are an important complement to college courses, as they help fully prepare students for the challenges and day-to-day realities of a professional career.

This is precisely why 78.2 percent of higher-education students in Southwest Michigan will complete at least one internship before graduation.

“Ultimately, when students leave college, we want them to go with real, tangible experiences that are impactful and intentional,” said Sarah Hagen, career development specialist at Western Michigan University (WMU). “We want them to take the things they’re learning in the classroom and apply this knowledge in a context where they’ll be able to pair it with skills and professional experiences.”

Maybe the term “internship” brings to mind a student being sent around the office and given busy work—Brew coffee! Make copies! Sort files! You’ll be encouraged to see how companies across Southwest Michigan are working to eradicate this old-school portrayal by providing students with an internship experience they’ll carry with them until the day they retire.

“The ultimate internship is not getting coffee and filing papers,” Hagen stressed. “It’s a meaningful experience in which students feel as though they’re a part of the team, they’re working on an actual project—something they can look at and say, ‘I touched this. I had a part in this product.’ [In the ultimate internship], students have a seat at the meeting room table. They leave with real professional skills and competencies.”

So how are Southwest Michigan companies developing “the ultimate internship”? Strategies include building infrastructure for year-round or multi-year experiences, dropping interns straight into the thick of things, assigning students to follow and aid in major projects, and more. At many area companies, including MANN+HUMMEL USA, CSM Group, and Duncan Aviation, interns will leave having never fetched a coffee order—and the student, the company, and the region will be better for it.

Engineering Mature Professionals

When Jack Endres, vice president of operations at MANN+HUMMEL USA, started at the engineering firm in 1997, about 70 people were employed at its Portage branch. Today, the branch boasts over 720 individuals; at any given time, between nine and 17 of them are interns.

Endres has no qualms about including these student workers in the firm’s total employee count, largely because of how wholly MANN+HUMMEL integrates interns into its team. “[Back in ’97], we found that we were struggling to pull full-time engineers for our market and have them be really ready and able to contribute up front—so we started bringing in interns,” Endres said.

“A lot of companies target juniors and seniors,” Endres continued. “But the way we see it, snagging interns when they’re early in their school career is a real opportunity for us and the students. We like to get two or three years from the experience for a couple of reasons. Because of that length of time, students can begin contributing fully and competing with even full-time employees. They get the chance to try on some different hats and really locate their passions. We get to see them grow, and by the end of it, they’re contributing fully—so if we decide to bring them on full-time, they’re holding their own from day one because they’ve already been in the job, essentially, for three years.”

Endres hired the company’s first-ever intern soon after starting full-time himself. “I graduated from WMU, then hired someone as an intern who was a few years behind me in the program there. It happened really quickly and clearly. We could see that, when these interns graduated, they were outperforming all of the professionals we brought in off the general market. It all made perfect sense.”

Over the course of an intern’s two to three years—year-round—with MANN+HUMMEL, they will experience learning that is “drastically different from what they’re doing in school.” They’ll kick off their tenure by engaging in a “buddy system” of sorts—an opportunity which provides work experience and guidance to interns as well as leadership opportunity for existing employees. In the beginning, there will be a lot of administrative work on the interns’ plates, to help familiarize them with the company and its processes.

They spend the latter years working to offset labor alongside full-time engineers, supporting areas that see spikes in activity. The length of the commitment that the firm makes to its interns—and the interns to the firm—sets the internship program at MANN+HUMMEL apart. “In the end, we’re building. We’re trying to develop this talent pipeline so we’ve got a labor pool of these experienced, talented young engineers to pull from as we grow.”

Endres said of the program as a whole, “Our interns aren’t delivering paychecks or handing out mail—except on Tuesdays, when they actually do distribute the mail. But really, we make it so they have tasks that are highly necessary. We give them decisions to make. We empower our interns so that they’re really a part of the team—not some subset or subspecies to our full-time workers, but they’re really a part of everything we do here.”

Laying the Foundation

Nearly 32 years ago, Todd McDonald started with CSM Group as an intern. Now he’s the company’s chief operating officer. Thinking back on the early days of the group’s internship program, he said, “There wasn’t a lot of structure to it then. Actually, Steve East, who’s our chairman and CEO now, wasn’t quite finished with his own degree back then. He was taking classes at WMU, and he’d meet students in class and bring them on as interns. Our recruiting and internship experience has certainly been refined over the years, but that’s how it all began.”

These days, CSM Group works to make every intern’s experience as purposeful as possible, from start to finish. “We actually did a ‘signing day’ for this year’s interns,” McDonald said. “We brought each of them into the office and used social media to broadcast each intern’s decision to spend the summer with us.”

From there, the onboarding process is the same for interns as it is for any new hire. “Each intern actually receives a package in the mail prior to their start date,” McDonald said. “It contains information regarding everything they need to prepare for their first week, including a detailed itinerary. They also receive the clothing they’ll need at different times over the course of their internship.”

When things get rolling in a CSM Group internship, interns find themselves onsite alongside their assigned team every day. This summer, the firm has an intern with a team in Traverse City, another in Jackson, and several others accompanying teams around the region and state. These interns will return to CSM Group’s main office, which is located in The Foundry in downtown Kalamazoo, only a couple of times throughout the summer. This keeps the students fully integrated in their specific projects.

Placing interns at project sites allows CSM Group to demonstrate to interns the importance of each individual day. “We ensure that every intern has responsibilities—not just tasks, but real commitments—every day,” McDonald said. “Every intern should come to work each day with a plan and direction for their work. On a daily basis, our interns are a working part of the team. They understand that every day comes with expectations and responsibilities—not just tasks. At the end of the summer, they’ll have had an honest experience.”

A typical internship with CSM Group will include learning industry project management software, keeping daily reports, working with a project’s foreman and surrounding team, and more. McDonald explains the group’s goal for interns simply: “We want our interns to experience just the sort of things we want our permanent team members to experience.”

From our perspective, the most successful internship results in an intern who remains a part of our team long after the summer has ended,” said McDonald. “It’s an internship where a student actively seeks responsibility and teaches our team as much as we teach them.”

The Sky’s the Limit

At Duncan Aviation, three short months can have a big impact on interns. As Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Andy Richards put it, “It’s three months of total immersion; we really throw them into it.”

Over the course of the summer months, interns with Duncan Aviation learn about industry safety standards. They spend time inside, beneath, and on top of aircraft. By the end of the summer, they’ve had a range of experiences that are typically reserved for seasoned professionals.

“Our interns have loads of coaching and mentorship throughout the process because they’re brand new, and because we work in such a safety-intensive industry,” said Richards. “A lot of oversight is provided, but the key is for us to get them to the action, to have our interns experience what it’s like to really do the job.”

The impact of Duncan’s internships is embodied by Margaret Lorinczi, a former intern who has gone on to make a career with the company. “My internship [with Duncan] was great; I was able to add so many tools to my belt,” said Lorinczi. “Two weeks after I started as an intern, I was sent to Lakeland to work for a few weeks on a very big install. I remember being nervous at first, but I realized then that I’d already been given all the tools I needed, even to work on such a huge project.”

After graduating, Lorinczi chose to stick with Duncan Aviation and moved to a full-time role. “When I started full-time, I realized that, although I’d only been in the role for a short time, I was totally fine to support myself, even through a large install. My internship played a huge part in that.” Lorinczi feels the same way many students do about the value of internships, whatever the field: “When it comes to working with an aircraft—you’re just not going to learn that stuff while sitting at a desk.”

According to Liz Van Dussen, human resources manager at Duncan Aviation, the company’s internship program will continue to grow over the coming years. “What makes it so sustainable is the fact that we’ve cultivated this really competitive career marketplace. Maintaining our internship program means we’ve got a major advantage when it comes to hiring interns and bringing them on as really strong, well-trained professionals.”

Richards also sees the benefits that the internship program brings to all involved. “At the end of the day, our internship is this great win-win thing—for the intern, for Duncan, and for our industry as a whole. We all benefit from working with these great young professionals.”

A Valuable Investment

Sarah Hagen of WMU emphasizes that regional companies shouldn’t miss out on the benefits of having an internship program. “In Southwest Michigan, we’ve got this enormous pool of students—from WMU to Kalamazoo College to Kalamazoo Valley Community College—we have so many young professionals right here in the region who are extremely hungry for the practical, hands-on internship experience that companies can offer them. From these companies’ side of things, the talent they need is, quite literally, right in the backyard. They have everything they need to build a talent pipeline—and that starts with creating a valuable internship experience.”

From the very first moment of an internship, Hagen advises all companies to be as intentional as MANN+HUMMEL USA, CSM Group, and Duncan Aviation. According to Hagen, each organization should ask these questions when striving to develop the ultimate internship: “What’s the big picture of your company? Why are your interns here? What’s your mission, and what does your work—and the work of interns—do for the world? It’s by determining these things and constructing a valuable internship experience around them that interns will become the important asset to our workforce that they can ultimately become.”

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