I have to admit that there is a temptation to go off on a nice slew of off-color attempts at humor regarding this topic. For one thing, interns nowadays usually wear a classic white shirt with brown or black pants (both men and women wear this standard business casual attire), not a blue dress or suit. But then again, in this day and age, that doesn't mean much … But an intern would look awfully funny trying to pull together a blue getup, considering that they have no matching low-heel pumps or dress shoes, or a matching hand-bag (for the ladies) to go with the dress or suit. Sorry about my attempt to make a joke, but I just had to give in to the temptation.
All fashion jokes aside, when we're looking for a qualified intern of any gender or dress code, even though work is slow, if not close to dead for most of us, top talent is possible to find without having to spend top dollar if you look in the right places.
Right now, the next generation of future project managers is coming up mostly through the academic pipeline. Old-timers, like me and possibly you, who somehow worked their way up the ladder from the field to the office without benefit of much formal education are becoming a rarity as they age and retire.
Young people in construction management programs are looking for an edge that will put them a few steps ahead of the competition - their peers. Finding an edge might be a crapshoot right now given the economy, but if an opportunity is found, it will probably pay off handsomely for them in the future.
They're smarter than you and I combined when we were their age. They are hungrier, more determined, more knowledgeable about the industry, more focused on “the prize” and understand that in their future a strong sense of ethics and a forceful, but not overwhelming personal presence will be a requisite for career success. Take advantage of this pool of budding talent, which can be selectively had for little to no cost. Leverage their enthusiasm and energy into bottom-line profits on what work is out there - or your competition will.
But just like so-called “free software” or “free advertising,” there is always a price to pay. Anything that comes into your life as free means that you will have to spend your time learning about it and investing in its future, working towards its and your respective success.
Never assume, no matter how seemingly intelligent they are, that they know squat about anything (for that matter, you should feel the same about current staff as well) and will have to be taught everything from square one in order to be of any actual use to you. But it is a reasonable expectation to assume that once taught, they'll work with focus and diligence even on the most menial of tasks for the chance to be trained. They will be eager to prove themselves in a real-world environment.
Even though you'll probably end up using them to do tasks that most staffers in your office would consider monotonous, such as invoice reconciliation, assembling equipment submittals or cross-checking as-builts to work completed, don't abuse them by making them make past-due collection calls or deal with a particularly unpleasant client over a minor issue. Let them learn the business from the ground-up, but don't sour them on a potential career in mechanical contracting by first rubbing their noses in the nasty parts of it.
One huge advantage of selectively hiring and training interns is that you get to cherry pick from the best of the best enrolled in a university construction management program or similar program. You also get to initially train them based on your company needs/wants, and you get the opportunity to see if the they might be a good fit for your company in the future, after they graduate. If it's obvious during an intern's tenure that the chemistry's just not right, you both have still benefited from the internship, and it's still a win-win all the way around.
It's important to treat them as if they were a paid staff member even if no actual salary exchange is involved when choosing and bringing them on. I'm no lawyer, but please keep in mind that you still need to be aware of all local, state and federal workplace laws and regulations when you bring an intern on board. There is always an implied employer-employee relationship even when no salary is involved, and if you ignore this implied relationship, you're just asking to get bit on the ass.
We all got our start in this industry by someone taking the time to look us in the eye and ask us a few questions. When they got the impression from us that we were going to be sharp, work hard and keep our noses clean, they gave us our first chance to prove ourselves, usually as a field helper, tool-crib monkey or sheet metal bender. Just like you once did, interns (our future project managers and senior estimators) are eager for their first real-world career opportunity and will work hard and help out as much as they can when given the chance. Interns are out there for the taking - your competition is already using them. Don't be left out.
Kent Craig is a second-generation mechanical contractor with unlimited Master's licenses in boilers, air conditioning, heating and plumbing. You may contact him via email at [email protected].