The value of a quality internship program

Great businesses require great teams. Great teams require great talent. Great talent is attracted and retained through a variety of mechanisms, with one of the most tried and true methods being the execution of a strong internship program.

The classic model of summer internship programs which expose bright young students to your business providing the opportunity for an 8-10 week “two-way working interview” has sustained the recruiting needs for many roles in our industry over the last several decades. While it can’t be your only approach to recruiting new talent, it’s a core part of your overall recruiting platform for most swine production businesses.

At first glance, internship programs are intimidating for both an employer and a potential intern. For the intern, your summers give you the opportunity for either work or play and it’s not hard to empathize with those who choose the “play” option. It takes determination and a strong work ethic to choose the “work” path of a summer internship. You’ve got to hit your application deadline, line up your references, execute a solid interview and then be willing to travel to a potentially new geography, working with potentially new contacts on new farms in a new system – that’s a lot for anybody to sign up for!

For the employer, you’ve got to invest significant resources in recruiting high quality interns, on-boarding those interns, ensuring their work gives them solid exposure to your business and asking them for feedback on how to further improve the experience for future interns. To define and execute the program well, you don’t just need resources … you need some of your best resources available. It’s hard to pull these team members away from other responsibilities and the always present demand for urgent farm support. All that being said, for both employers and interns alike who embrace the challenges and opportunities involved in a quality internship program, the payback is well worth the investment.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have experience working in three outstanding internship programs. My first exposure to internships was at The Maschhoffs. In 2005 they graciously accepted me into their internship program after my first year of veterinary school. They treated me like a member of the team, heck, they treated me like a member of the family! I made lifelong friends that summer, most of whom just like me, went to work for The Maschhoffs as soon as we could.

During my time as an employee at The Maschhoffs I saw how the program continued to bring new talent into the business. How we were able to get to know the intern and the intern was able to get to know the company – both of us evaluating the other and seeing if we were a fit. Countless professionals were hired and without doubt, the retention of our former interns was superior to retention of new employees who hadn’t had the benefit of the “extended working interview” the internship provides.

My experience with internship programs in the Carthage System has been very similar. In my time at Carthage we’ve had countless interns join us with interests ranging from production to veterinary medicine to accounting to marketing. Our team treats the internship program like the talent pipeline it is.

All interns go through a carefully crafted and executed on-boarding program. All interns have a project to call their own. All interns participate in a company wide “report out” from their project at the end of the year. It’s amazing to see the growth of these individual over the summer they’re with us.

Similar to my experiences at The Maschhoffs, we’ve been able to hire many of these former interns as employees and even for those who don’t end up Carthage employees, they serve as amazing recruiters for us within their networks helping to fill future internship programs as well as job opening.

While the internship programs at The Maschhoffs and Carthage serve as a successful model for any production system, I would be remised to share any internship experiences without a discussion about the countless interns Dr. John Waddell and his wonderful wife Carol have provided. During his years of private practice at Sutton Veterinary Clinic in Sutton, Nebraska John welcomed hundreds of students interested in swine medicine. Often hosting them at his home, John demonstrated the ideals and principles of a world class internship program before formal programs existed. Truly ahead of his time, spending time with John was a highly sought-after experience for young swine students.

John and Carol sacrificed their personal time to make sure you felt welcome. No matter your background, experience level or education they wanted to make sure you gained an understanding of what it meant to work in the swine industry and most importantly, how you could be as blessed as they were to have made a career in this business. Days started early and we worked hard, but the experiences you gained during those long days made it well worth the while. On evenings and weekends John and Carol went out of their way to include you in social activities. Whether it was “Wing Night” down in Strang or egg sandwiches for breakfast on Sunday morning, you were more than a part of the work efforts, you were a part of the Sutton community.

The lessons I learned from my summer in Sutton, Nebraska impact every decision I make today. When asked where the inspiration to host students came from, John shares “because someone did it for me.” John also feels strongly that the internship can benefit your business in a variety of ways including “I always seemed to gain more knowledge than I meted out.” What advice would John have for somebody looking to start a new internship program or improve an existing one? “Just do it! The students you mentor will soon be your colleagues or employees and will likely be lifelong friends.”

Is an internship program valuable to your business? Every leader has to make that decision for themselves. The best advice I can give you is you can’t have an internship program, but not optimally execute it. If interns have a bad experience you’ll be doing damage to your recruiting efforts for both future interns and employees for years to come. As the old saying goes, “If you have a good experience you might share it with one or two people. If you have a bad experience you’re likely to tell 10 or 20 people about it.”

News of a bad internship experience will spread quickly through the internal’s network, and those who hear of this unfortunate experience are going to have a poor perception of your business going forward. They’re unlikely to apply for your open positions whether its an internship or a job. Further, the intern will likely share this poor experience with their professors and mentors at school. Those academic leaders will be very hesitant to send their best and brightest your way in the future.

From my perspective, defining and executing a quality internship program is a no-brainer decision for most if not all swine production systems I’ve been fortunate enough to interact with. You get exposed to the most talented and hardest working young people who are eager to contribute to our industry. The talent pipeline a quality internship program creates is absolutely critical to hiring young professionals. These former interns enter your business with a wealth of knowledge from their internship – they understand your business model, your key production practices and most importantly, your culture. Because of this, turnover with former interns is lower than other new hires. They’re coming back to you for a reason, because they like how you operate your business and how you treat your employees.

If you have an internship program today, put yourself in your interns’ shoes … would you find their experience to be a positive one? Would you want to work in your business at the end of the summer? What would you tell your peers, teachers and mentors about your business when you go back to school?

If you don’t have an internship program today, start one up! But only do it if you’re truly invested in the program. Treat your internship program like what it is – a critical and core component of your overall talent acquisition program.

Source: Clayton Johnson, who is solely responsible for the information provided, and wholly owns the information. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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