Internships can feed the talent pipeline for many small- to medium-sized manufacturers facing serious workforce gaps as their senior employees near retirement. But internship success (finding, engaging, and retaining talent) requires strategy and planning to locate and groom qualified job candidates.
As the Program Manager of Apprenticeship and Workforce at the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership (MEP), I often ask manufacturers, “What do you want to get out of an intern working at your company? What will your program look like?” What do you want interns to do every day?”
Much like new-hire onboarding, internships require structure to realize long-term value, which of course is job placement. My job is to help provide that structure through our Maryland MEP Manufacturing Summer Internship Program.
Maryland employers who have participated in the program report more than $1 million in cost benefits, including:
- Saved time and resources associated with finding and vetting qualified interns
- Offset intern salaries via state agency funding
- Reduced recruiting expenses for sourcing skilled job candidates
What’s more, manufacturers are realizing that students can contribute to the growth and success of their companies while they’re still interning.
For example, a mechanical engineering intern in our program created new lighting fixtures via prototyping and 3D CAD design, which the company used for bidding opportunities. The company gained fresh new ideas and technological knowledge because they provided a real, meaningful work experience for the intern, instead of “temp work” to meet a production quota.
If you’re willing to invest the time and resources to create a rewarding internship for a student, your company may benefit from new automation and process ideas you may not currently have under your roof.
How Internships Pay for Themselves
For smaller manufacturers, allocating resources to a structured internship program can be tough. You have to be willing to invest as much time and effort into an internship as you would onboarding a new hire. But that long-term engagement can really pay long-term dividends.
Maryland and other states are seeing measurable ROI from engineering co-op programs, where students spend entire semesters working while earning school credit. At our Maryland MEP co-op, over 80% of the students selected to participate in the program were placed in permanent positions.
You can try “conditional offers” as a way to create long-term value from an internship, if you’re willing to hire an intern after graduation. Once a student has met your skills learning criteria and school requirements, you get an employee who has already been through onboarding and initial training. The student is less inclined to look for jobs elsewhere after graduation because he or she knows there’s a job waiting at your company.
With internships, you essentially get to “try before you buy.” Statistically, the turnover rate is 20% lower for employees hired through internships. And a high retention rate can add up to significant cost savings — especially for smaller manufacturers.
The Nuts & Bolts of Internship Success
To create a successful internship program, employers first have to decide how to structure the program and decide what interns will be expected to do on a daily basis. When looking at your plan, you need to be able to measure success after the internship is over, so you can determine your criteria for keeping the intern in your talent pipeline. What will you gain if you continue the working relationship with this person?
After summer internships are complete, it’s critical to continue the relationship with the students to engage them long term. Maybe you can invite them back to your company for regular “gig work” or other projects during winter or spring breaks.
Finding Internship Program Assistance
To start an internship program, check your local community colleges and state university websites to see if they can help. Your state or local department of labor can also help and may even provide funding to offset the cost of internship salaries.
The Maryland MEP program’s success is driven by our close relationships with area universities and community colleges where we source potential interns. We look for juniors and seniors who are still weighing their post-graduation career options. Next, we interview and vet candidates based on characteristics and expected job duties provided by our manufacturer participants. We match the right candidate with the right job role, from mechanical engineering to chemical biology to administrative roles like marketing and recruiting.
If you don’t have a manufacturing operation in Maryland but want internship assistance, check with your local MEP Center to see if they offer similar programs. The Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida, and Pennsylvania MEP Centers, for instance, already have programs in place that you can access to start developing a value-adding internship program.
This article originally was written for Industry Week by Becky Kemp, program manager for Apprenticeship and Workforce Development at the Maryland Manufacturing Extension Partnership. (CIRAS is the MEP affiliate in Iowa.)
Iowa also supports internships. A program offered through the Iowa Economic Development Authority (IEDA) provides matching money to cover up to one-half the cost of some interns’ pay. For more information, see this CIRAS News article or the IEDA website.