Photo: Seymour Johnson AFB
The ad (below), posted on Craigslist, seeks a summer intern. No biggie. Plenty of companies actively recruit students for internship programs, which have become virtually a rite of passage into the workforce in the last two decades.
The difference is that this ad is being run by a roofing company looking for someone who wants to gain experience as an estimator.
Internship programs draw students or recent graduates to a company for a set period, usually a few months and typically during the summer. There they gather experience, often under the tutelage of a mentor. It’s a great idea and is hugely popular, but one that, up until now, never really caught on with home improvement companies, which tend to hire on the fly. Big commercial construction companies such as Turner Construction, on the other hand, long ago caught on to the efficiency of creating internship programs as a future-employee pipeline. Turner’s program is called the BRIDGE and the multibillion dollar builder of office buildings and other commercial projects makes no bones about its purpose: “The BRIDGE program,” says the company on its website, “is more than a summer job—it’s a professional and educational process that prepares students for a successful transition to a challenging and rewarding career.” At Turner, they clearly hope.
Not a Free Labor Pool
A 2014 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 61 percent of graduating seniors had had an internship or co-op experience, and that the majority were paid. According to the study, the average hourly wage rate for interns at the bachelor’s degree level ranged from $15.05 to $17.94 per hour, $22.21 to $23.06 at the master’s level, with “distinct differences in hourly wage rates” based on class year and academic major, with engineers getting about $3 per hour more than liberal arts majors.
Internship programs used to be considered by some employers as a way to bring in an extra body at little or no cost, since internships can be either paid or unpaid. That thinking has changed. A spate of court cases involving lawsuits by former interns suing the companies where they’d worked for past wages due, such as one suit filed by interns against publisher Conde Nast, as well as others against Universal Music Group, Viacom, and Fox Searchlight Pictures, caused many companies to reconsider the idea of unpaid internships.
In addition, the Supreme Court has ruled that under the Fair Labor Standards Act, six criteria “must be applied when determining if an internship can be unpaid,” according to The Viscardi Center, a nonprofit working to educate and empower individuals with disabilities. You can only offer an unpaid internship if:
• The training in the internship is similar to what would be given in an educational environment;
• What the intern does is for the benefit of the intern, not the company;
• Intern activities do not displace current staff;
• Intern activities provide “no immediate advantage” for the employer;
• Interns understand that they are not entitled to a job at the conclusion of their internship; and
• Interns are aware that they’re not entitled to wages.
Making an Internship Program Work
Most companies pay their interns, especially in construction, and what these businesses seek are intelligent, motivated people who become convinced, as a result of their experience, that the company where they interned would be a great place to work full-time. For most companies offering an internship program, that’s the definition of success. How to make that happen? Here are suggestions from several experts.
• Make sure the position includes hands-on work in the field. “Interns are not here to fetch you coffee or sort through your filing drawer with their eyes glazed over,” writes Deborah Sweeney in Forbes. “A successful internship program is one that teaches and provides plenty of hands-on experience within the field the intern is hired to work in.”
• Invest in their training. It may seem beside the point to spend time and resources training someone who’s only going to be at your company for a few months but, writes Matt Eyring in Entrepreneur, “if interns feel their learning and growth was significant in the few months they were with your company, they are more likely to continue investing in themselves and their growth by returning full time.”
• Mentoring makes the difference. As with any new employee, your success in hiring an intern—assuming yours would be paid—is directly proportionate to the amount of work and time that goes into preparation. Having a schedule of what you’d like to see accomplished and when, and a mentor to explain procedures and offer feedback, is often the difference between a successful internship program and one that falls flat. “Stranding your intern without a point person isn’t fair to the intern, and isn’t productive for your company either,” writes Nellie Akalp at Mashable. “Make sure each intern has at least one person that they can turn to with any questions.”
Because so few home improvement companies offer internship programs—seeing themselves as not large enough to accommodate such an effort—those that do often find themselves having to learn as they go. This summer, Randy Hann, co-owner of Contract Exteriors, a roofing and siding company in Myrtle Beach, S.C., plans to bring on three interns. Hann, with a degree in construction management, participated in an internship program years ago as a student at a construction company and now serves on the advisory board of his alma mater, The Ohio State University. He set up the paid internship program at Contract Exteriors four years ago, reaching out to Ohio State as well as to local colleges in North and South Carolina, learning along the way that “having an exact process in place” is essential. Contract Exteriors interns spend four weeks in production, four weeks in estimating, and two weeks is “flex,” meaning they can select sales, customer experience, or some other aspect of the business. “The idea is for them to get the most out of it,” Hann says. What his company gets out of it is the “fresh air” those interns bring to its culture, along with the possibility that they may, at some point, decide to make employment with Contract Exteriors a future career.