Historically internship programs in mechanical contracting have been grounded in hands-on, in-person experiences. As you can imagine, much of what we do benefits from a face-to-face exchange of ideas and practical process learning. In 2020, though, we were forced to rethink that method. The pandemic caused us to consider a program outside the jobsite and office.
When COVID hit, we were in the summer-planning stage of internship preparation. And since in-person interactions were suddenly limited (at best) for the foreseeable future, we faced a decision: do we cancel, postpone or adapt?
We chose the latter, and our virtual internship program in 2020 was a resounding success. So how can an internship program in mechanical construction be moved from the jobsite to the screen? By fearlessly embracing a culture of innovation, investing in IT solutions, creating a clear and flexible structure and giving autonomy to the managers doing the daily work of mentorship.
Easier said than done, I know. Still, a fear of failure stifles innovation, and in the case of moving a traditionally in-person experience into the virtual world, innovation is key.
Last March I researched and reached out to my peers in the industry and learned that many of them decided to forego their internship programs this year entirely. Of those who suspended their programs, most of the decisions came from their leadership. And who can blame them—COVID-19 landed in the United States during prime internship season, in many ways catching people off guard. Internship programs take months to plan in normal times, and none of us had much information about the virus in those early days.
When we were deciding whether to cancel, postpone or restructure our program, one of the main questions we considered was how can we—or, can we—effectively translate the knowledge gained from in-person mentorship into a digital space?
Our answer was an unambiguous yes. Because yes is built into our company culture, and so is the notion of innovating to evolve. That companywide mindset is applied as much to offsite manufacturing or application development as it is to our practices in human resources or marketing. So with that foundation, we didn’t have to take a giant leap from the on-site version of our internship program to the virtual.
Our leadership gives all of our team members permission to fail. How can we move forward without the courage to try something new? As we developed our contingency plan for the 2020 internship program, we were confident in knowing that leadership backed us and wanted us to think outside of the box, risking failure, in order to come up with a solution.
This one may seem obvious, but dependable IT solutions are a must. Your ability to pull off a meaningful virtual experience depends on the infrastructure to do so. Start your planning with the basics: what platforms will you leverage for presentations? For communications? What technology will you use to manage your interns’ workflows? Whether you have a large IT team or not, make a technology plan that will support your goals for your interns.
For us, a major plus was our IT team’s recent task of taking our companies offsite. They had just moved over 400 U.S. Engineering team members from offices and jobsites into work-from-home situations. We were already leveraging Microsoft Teams for cross-regional meetings and collaboration, and our IT teams had been setting up and tearing down temporary offices on jobsites for years.
Thanks to that work, we were able to produce a virtual version of almost everything an intern would experience during a normal year. For example, we performed a virtual jobsite tour via Teams meeting led by our project team at Kansas City International Airport (KCI). The U.S. Engineering Construction team there is helping build a new terminal, and they walked our interns, virtually, through some of their work and processes. They put together an amazing and technically savvy “show” for the interns, coordinating all of the a/v logistics and imparting knowledge along the way.
I was so proud of that group. It was so successful, in fact, that one of our interns went on to recreate that virtual jobsite tour experience with our KCI partners Henderson Engineering and Clark Weitz Clarkson for the Society of Women Engineers at Kansas University.
From the beginning, we clearly defined the roles of the Intern Committee and managers and created a program structure that left room for flexibility. Our internship program spans our U.S. Engineering companies, and interns’ responsibilities and experiences differ depending on where they’re assigned and what responsibilities they’re given. We may have an operations project engineer intern, a virtual construction intern and an application development intern all in the same cohort.
For the virtual experience, then, it was important for the Intern Committee not to micromanage; rather, we made it clear that we were there to support each manager’s vision of what their individual internship program should look like. The Intern Committee was responsible for groupwide events, professional development opportunities and community engagement guidance. Managers were responsible for providing the hands-on work and for personally mentoring their interns.
For our part, the Intern Committee organized fun activities, like trivia and a virtual painting party, helped our interns organize community engagement projects and created an “About U.S.” series. The series invited team members from all facets of U.S. Engineering companies to present about what they do. Those sessions were invaluable for our interns’ understanding not only of what our company does, but what the construction industry does, and how we fit into that community.
The Intern Committee also provided broader professional development support in virtual content. Our interns had access to Skillshare and LinkedIn Learning. Professional curiosity is an underemphasized skill for many in the workforce, not just in construction, and this virtual content encouraged our interns to seek out development opportunities that interested them, for example improving communications, building positive habits and considering personal branding to name a few.
We, the Intern Committee, set the stage for the program, and then stepped back, assuming a support role for our managers. We built flexibility into a virtual program taking place during a time of uncertainty by trusting our managers and giving them autonomy. (Read on!)
Allow the experts to do their work. Giving managers autonomy not only provides the flexibility you will need to make a virtual internship work, but it leaves room for your interns to really learn the craft from project managers, virtual construction experts, operations advisors and field professionals. All of these team members have a wealth of knowledge to share, and the best thing we can do for our interns is to give those team members room to work. They truly act as mentors, showing our interns what it takes to succeed in our industry, and guiding and listening to them, setting them up for success.
As I mentioned, in mechanical contracting, internship programs are not one-size-fits-all. So as we conceive our programs, we need to provide the space for customized work plans. Interns benefit from mentorship that specifically speaks to their career paths.
So again, set the stage and back away. Act as a facilitator, a support group
Our internship program was bright spot in a rather dark year. It gave everyone involved a sense that we were all in this together. Company leadership’s vote of confidence in us to figure it out; the Intern Committee’s confidence in managers and mentors in the program, and interns’ virtual interconnection during a year of isolation; all of those elements bolstered a sense of solidarity, togetherness.
While we don’t have plans to permanently go virtual, the thought exercise of reexamining what an internship looks like, what students can or should be getting out of an internship program, broadened our perspective on our own program. Because of this virtual experience, we now have plans to expand our Intern Committee. We’re including more team members from every area of our business, from all U.S. Engineering companies, to inform where we take the program in the future. For example, this expansion will bring in more perspectives on, say, recruiting: what schools we reach out to, what kind of events we hold and attend on campus, how we engage with students, how we expand diversity among our recruits. Moving our program to a virtual platform brought more voices from across our companies together, into the same virtual space, and we want to continue to listen to those diverse voices as we plan future internships.
We also gained consistency—in the past our different regions have pretty much run their own internship programs, which has many benefits, but our virtual program this year brought everyone together. We want our future programs to feel more connected. We like that there are regional differences, for example region-specific events, but our goal moving forward is to create a program with a consistent feel across regions, a unified program. Our virtual experience moved us closer to that goal.
We don’t know what the coming months hold. We don’t yet know how our 2021 internship program will look. But we do know that it’s possible to create a successful virtual internship experience for those seeking to break into our industry. And after 2020, we’re confident in our ability to adapt. Regardless, and this is perhaps the most important measure of our 2020 internship program, we hope our interns had a positive experience that will resonate with them, especially as they consider future employers.
Desiree Sharp is the Recruiting Manager overseeing enterprise-wide talent acquisition strategies and has been with U.S. Engineering for nearly 7 years. Working in Human Resources since 2005, she has a passion for identifying top talent and placing them in new opportunities that match their skillsets.