Getting the Best from Your Construction Interns

Author Brad Humphrey shares nine tips on how contractors can get the best from their interns and internship program

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A growing number of companies have realized the benefits to bringing an internship program to their organization. Larger contractors have used interns for years, but the experience has become more common for many contractors no matter their size.

For all the benefits that an internship program can bring to an organization, few companies really exhaust their efforts to make the experience all that it can be. Let me share a few signs of a poor internship program.

  • College students are not interviewed; just “invited & assigned”
  • Interns are given primarily administrative or low difficulty jobs
  • Interns are not included in strategic based meetings, decisions, etc.
  • The company does not work to determine the potential of the intern
  • The intern is not questioned by their “host” company about new trends being taught in school

Ask many interns who have experienced one or more of the signs listed above and you will find an intern who heads back to school considering other career choices. At the least, the intern will probably not consider being hired by the same company they served their internship.

If you believe that internships are worth the effort, and include an internship program as part of your company’s strategy to grow the company by finding the future workers and leaders, then you will be quite pleased with this article. If you are interested in starting an internship program or want to upgrade your current efforts, then this article will really resonate with you and provide you with some excellent building tips. Remember, the internship program should be part of your future growth plans.

Let’s look at how to get the very best from your interns…and your internship program.

1. Interview intern candidates as if you were hiring

Asking the local college to send over a few candidates to intern with you is not going to help identify the best intern candidate. You must plan to interview intern candidates in the same manner that you might interview any job candidate. While the questions may be different, you need to prepare by interviewing the intern to determine their aptitude and attitude. Anything less than this level of commitment and you will have only brought on short-term administrative assistants.

2. Identify, train & commit an intern “point of contact”

I conduct training for many contractors on how to be a leader to an intern. But first, a company needs to identify the right candidate to be an intern point of contact, or IPC. This person needs to be someone who will oversee and coach the intern on their role, responsibilities and their job expectations. 

The IPC needs to be trained on how to interact with their intern, how to address improvements when needed, even how to determine if the intern should be a future candidate for employment. Finally, the IPC needs to be fully committed to fulfilling all that is needed to make the intern’s experience enjoyable, educational and encouraging. It is quite common for contractors to hire employees who may have served an internship while they were in college.

3. Develop goals & exit strategies for the intern

The intern, while interviewing, should be told that they will have goals set if they are selected. This effort must be accomplished and delivered on the intern's very first day with your company. The goals might be reflective of what the IPC believes the intern should be striving to achieve during the time-period of the internship. 

Once the intern has been around for a few weeks, the IPC should sit down with the intern and begin to map out some exit strategies for the intern’s departure. The exit strategies might be a continuation of the goals, but they may also include other achievements that the IPC believes the intern capable of finishing as they complete their internship.

The exit strategies might include preparing for and making a presentation to senior leaders on their internship experience or, it might include having the intern complete some written exercise that has lasting value such as a standard operating procedure, or a software instructional book, etc.

4. Match the intern with interest & educational desire

To gain the best from your intern it will be important to match their focus with something that will interest them and provide for some educational value. Part of any internship should include introducing the intern to some of the realities of construction or the specialty of your organization. Additionally, it is wise to ask the intern what is an area that captures their interest or desire. 

The intern’s interest should be discussed during the interviewing phase, before they are extended an offer to spend their internship with your company. Once they arrive, a brief confirmation of what they shared as their interest is then matched with a possible role that brings as much of the opportunity and educational value to their time with you. Not only does this meet their need, it also sends them back to school with a positive attitude and experience with your company, something that they will brag about to their academic advisor and to any of their peers interested in a future internship.

5. Empower the intern with some authority & responsibility

If you are to give the intern a great experience by educating them on how the “real world” works, you will need to invest some authority and responsibility into their time spent with you. Short of them running the company, you can still empower an intern with some authority, allowing them to make decisions that do not require them to have permission. Remember, they always have their IPC to throw ideas at, and who can counsel them on better options. Giving the intern a clear role description and the responsibilities that go along with the role reinforces the intern that they were not brought in only to make copies of drawings or to file customer files.

6. Schedule regular follow-up by the IPC & other company leaders

Depending on the length of the internship, there should be periodic and regular follow-up sessions with the intern. And, because so many companies fail at prioritizing the time spent with an intern, I would highly recommend that a regular schedule of more formal follow-up meetings are arranged between the intern, their IPC and other company leaders. 

The list of “other” company leaders might include the owner, a more senior leader, and a human resource manager. Conducting the follow-ups with such a diversity of leaders will reinforce the commitment that your company has to making the intern, and the internship program, a satisfying and a learning experience for the company.

7. Create a team exercise that the intern leads

One of the most interesting and beneficial observations I have made of companies who have a great internship program is engaging the intern in creating and facilitating a team-based exercise. The exercise might be job related or it might be team-building related. It’s not critical what the exercise is, but it will provide the intern with the chance to facilitate a meeting that they control, thus providing an opportunity for you to monitor just how well they do in a mixed-group of people.

8. Ensure that the intern spends an evening with the team

Only so much can be learned about an intern during the work day. While grabbing a cup of coffee with an intern, possibly taking them out lunch every few weeks, are good things to do, and should be encouraged, getting the intern out for an evening with one or more of the company employees often furthers the experience for the company and intern. This is not about going out and getting drunk, but instead, taking the intern to a more relaxing environment, allowing them to share more freely how they are doing, what type of things they feel they are learning and do they have any ideas or recommendations to share about the internship experience.

9. Assess the internship for all involved parties

By the end of the internship process it will be important to capture any learned lessons and opportunities for improvement that has been gained. Often, a company will only ask the Intern about their experience. I would recommend that you also include those who were part of the internship program, whether directly (IPC) or indirectly. Gathering feedback from the multiple perspectives can contribute to strengthening your internship program.

Internships are a great way for you to catch a close-up view of some of tomorrow’s workforce. It’s a chance to see what sort of talent is out there to hire. It’s also a chance for you to challenge your staff to recognize the importance of working with younger workers, being more sensitive about how your company “on-boards” new workers, and assess how effective the company is on training and development.

Internships are not about giving a college student an easy go of it, allowing them to spend eight to 12 weeks, maybe even 16 weeks or more, just hanging out. No, the internship should be viewed as an honor to experience and an awakening to how hard great companies work to be successful.

Want to get the best from your interns? Then put some of the steps presented here to work in your company and watch the energy that takes place between your interns and many of the company employees who will interact with the intern. It really is a win-win scenario.

Here’s to getting the best from your next intern!