Learning From Labor

When a local college student wandered into Magee Construction five years ago to inquire about internship possibilities, Wayne Magee didn’t think his business could afford the time to train an intern or that he even needed the extra help. Today, that on...

December 31, 1999

When a local college student wandered into Magee Construction five years ago to inquire about internship possibilities, Wayne Magee didn’t think his business could afford the time to train an intern or that he even needed the extra help. Today, that one-time intern still works for Magee, now as a full-time estimator and designer.

Deb Waterman first approached Magee for class credit. Nearby, the University of Northern Iowa offers courses in design, and as a requirement for graduation, students must complete a nine-week internship. Looking for a local office so that she could complete her courses, Waterman approached Magee Construction to see if it needed an extra hand. "I wanted something in the construction line," she says. "I just stumbled upon it."

"I first told her that we didn’t need any help," says Magee. "But I thought about it and said yes. Pretty quickly we discovered that we didn’t know how we’d gotten along without someone in that position. She could do the jobs we needed done without much coaching at all, and we offered her a job at the end of it."

Hiring Waterman showed Magee the holes in his office’s work flow. As she began drawing plans, obtaining permits and putting together product orders, Magee found himself free to work more closely with his clients and expand his business. "We discovered that we needed a person in that position," he says. "It would save us money rather than cost us money because we were able to expand. As estimators, we [were] often too bogged down in our own projects to do [smaller tasks] previously."

When Waterman moved from designing to estimating, another hole was created in the office system, and this time Magee actively went in search of an intern to fill the gap. Magee had Waterman approach her former instructors at the university for someone to work part time, and the instructors were happy to provide recommendations. "We asked instructors to identify their best students looking for work," says Magee. "We let them do that part of the work for us. They’ll gladly do that because they want their students to succeed." Magee Construction has hired four interns in the past five years.

Magee now takes on interns who are at the end of their junior year. They typically work for the summer and the entire following school year, usually moving on to different companies after graduation. He asks current interns to help find and train their own replacements when they’re ready to move on. The experienced intern and new intern work side by side for a few weeks while the new recruit learns the requirements of the job.

"They’re here long enough that they really are a benefit," says Magee. "And we’re not spending our whole time training them." By dividing the responsibility for training between the experienced intern and the whole office staff, Magee ensures that no one person is overtaxed by the new employee. The first two to three weeks are the toughest to get through for both the employer and the new person, who is adjusting to a strange environment.

According to Waterman, the university prepared her well for working in a remodeling business. "I knew enough to have the basics down, but I also knew that going out of school I didn’t know everything," she says. "The first time I worked on a project that I knew was actually going to be built, I also knew I had to be on the money. In school, I knew that no one was going to build [my designs]."

Although many interns will be able to work for college credit, Magee pays his interns an hourly wage. Typically, interns will work a regular schedule for 20 hours each week, spending the rest of their time on their courses. Interns at Magee Construction also usually work full time over the summer for the same hourly wage.

An intern’s training and workday include meeting with clients, drawing plans, reworking plans, applying for work permits and running errands. "It’s worth the extra time it takes to train them," says Magee. "When one of our estimators is going out, they’ll take turns taking an intern along. At first, they’ll just observe, but after a few weeks, we’ll start to turn them loose on a couple of jobs." In addition to meeting with clients and preparing plans, Magee Construction interns also contact trade contractors and assist in bid preparation.

According to Magee, if a remodeler is spending more than 25% of his or her time doing work that someone else could do, such as plan preparation or permit application, that remodeler might wish to consider taking on an intern. Not only will using the intern lighten the workload, but using a part-time, temporary employee also allows remodelers to see if there is enough work for a full-time person without committing to an extra salary on the payroll right away.

"There are other advantages to using an intern," says Magee. "You may discover that you do need a new full-time person, but the [intern] you have may not be the person you need. You can change that easily, [by hiring a different full timer,] as opposed to having to deal with a full-time person already there." Magee has found other ways to relieve the labor pinch based on his work with interns. Now he’ll hire temporary help from a local hiring agency to obtain laborers and carpenter’s help, or sometimes he’ll use contractors from other local companies in a lull, hiring help as hourly subcontrators. "It’s a win-win situation for the person doing the job and for us," says Magee.

Chance led to Magee hiring his first intern, and now he wouldn’t want to run his business without one. Not only has he found an extra source of labor, but he also can use interns’ skills to see where his business needs to be strengthened. "It was a revelation to us," he says. "We were so close to the problem that we couldn’t see it. You’ll discover that now there are a lot of [jobs] you can do that you couldn’t before."

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