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Manufacturing Internships Expand the Talent Pipeline

Two female interns looking at a high tech machine
Credit: NIST MEP

Manufacturing internships are one of the most effective methods for building your company’s talent pipeline. In my role as project manager for workforce programs at Iowa State University’s Center for Industrial Research and Service (CIRAS), I help manufacturers build their pipeline of manufacturing talent with an internship program focused on students from diverse, underrepresented groups. This is one of the many workforce-related programs offered across the MEP National Network by MEP Centers in every state and Puerto Rico. 

Small and medium-sized manufacturers may find it challenging to compete with bigger companies for students. This makes it especially important to widen the net when recruiting for internship programs. In addition to considering candidates from technical fields, also look for well-rounded students. Consider students’ social skills and look for a variety of academic majors to find potential interns who can bring fresh ideas to your company.

How to start an internship program

Before starting any internship program, you need a plan. Start by asking yourself key questions, such as:

  • Do you have meaningful work or projects you can assign? Students want to do a project where they can make an impact.
  • How will you align the internship project to time? If you want an intern to work on a project that is a full year’s length, you may consider offering a co-op rather than a summer internship.
  • Is everyone at your company on board? A successful internship takes everyone’s buy-in. Make sure those not involved with the project are ready to engage with the intern.
  • Do you have enough physical space and equipment to accommodate the intern? You wouldn’t hire a full-time employee without having a workspace or equipment for them to do a task. Give interns what they need, as well.

It’s important to be thinking about the types of work experiences you can offer student interns. Are you giving them goals? Do the goals go beyond one project?

An internship is often a student’s first opportunity to learn about the working world, and it’s a great opportunity to build life skills. For example, your company’s human resources staff might explain retirement accounts and other employee benefits. Interns can benefit from these experiences.

The elements of a successful internship program

Choose the right structure. It is important to select an internship program that is the right fit for your company. Some of the most common types of internships include:

  • Summer internships: Full-time work experience of at least 10 weeks during the summer.
  • Co-ops: Full-time work experience of at least one semester or one semester plus the summer.
  • Parallel co-ops and internships: Multiple periods of part-time work (often 20 hours per week) during the academic year.

It’s also important to understand the difference between an internship and a regular student job. Reach out to your local colleges and university career centers to ask what students are looking for.

Choose the right schools to work with. Consider the geographic location of colleges and universities in relation to your company and your needs. If you want a student intern working part-time at your location throughout the year, you need to work with a school that’s close to your facility.

Cast a wide – but intentional – net. Be intentional when recruiting for your internship program. What are you trying to achieve and who are you trying to hire? If you’re trying to diversify your talent pool, reach out to organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, or the Society of Women Engineers. Participate in networking events hosted by these organizations – these are excellent opportunities to talk to students.

Increase your company’s visibility. Be proactive and create visibility for your company at local colleges and universities. It takes more than passing out a few flyers at a career fair. Be a regular presence on campus, even if you don’t currently have an open position.

Offer high-quality internship experiences. Internships need to go beyond filling your part-time labor gaps. Today’s students want both personal and professional development experiences, so you need to find them meaningful work.

Consider virtual or hybrid internships. Think creatively! Have you considered a virtual internship? For example, if the training involves computer-aided design or plant layouts, students may be able to learn these skills from you virtually. Maybe the student can come in one day to work on the floor and use the rest of the week to virtually organize and analyze the data from that work. This flexibility can make it easier for students from different backgrounds and geographic areas to work at your facility.

Fresh ideas and youthful energy yield great results!

Interns may see things from a different perspective. They bring fresh ideas and energy to your organization. Their talents can benefit your business in unexpected ways, so be open to them. They may bring improvements you didn’t know you needed! Below are just a couple examples of the unexpected value that we’ve seen interns bring to manufacturers.

Automated inventory system. One intern placed through engagement opportunities at a small manufacturing company noticed that the company used an old-school manual inventory system. The student told them he could develop a plan to automate this process. He recognized that the company wasn’t in a financial position to invest in advanced inventory management tools, so he created a new online system using Excel! It was a low-cost process improvement!

Recruiting video. A human resources employee at a manufacturing company thought a tour might be a waste of time for a graphic design student. But at the end of the tour, the student told this staff member, “All your marketing materials and signs you’re using to attract talent, they’re really old fashioned! And you've got a very diverse workforce, but you’re not showing that. I can create a three-minute video to showcase all these cool things that are happening on your plant floor.” And because that graphic design student “wasted his time” taking that factory tour, the company ended up with an excellent intern who created a modern and effective three-minute recruiting video!

Recruiting diverse interns expands your talent pipeline

Make an effort to reach out to underrepresented communities when recruiting interns. CIRAS is intentional at attracting underrepresented groups for technical and managerial roles in manufacturing. One of the manufacturing companies I worked with found an intern from the CIRAS program.

Although this student did not become a permanent hire, she brought a great deal of value to the company. During her internship, she noticed that the company’s workforce was not very diverse, especially at the plant floor level. She told management that there was a large talent pool in her community that wasn’t being tapped into because of a perceived language barrier.

The company asked if she would be interested in advocating for it. She became an ambassador for the company to an underrepresented community of individuals, which in turn provided the company with a larger talent pipeline.

Your MEP Center can help you create a successful internship program

Be intentional with your internship program to provide value, both for the students and for your company. Make sure the students have plenty of opportunities to network with other interns and with your employees.

Your MEP Center can analyze your company’s situation, help you create an internship plan, and can even help you with your intern recruiting! The staff will make sure you have all the technology, coaching help, and operational components for internship success! Contact your local MEP Center to learn more.

About the author

Mayra S. Ramirez

Mayra Ramirez started her career at Iowa State University in 2014 with Engineering Career Services. She dedicated five years to helping employers and recruiters seek out recent graduates or interns...

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