The benefits of a next-generation internship program

February 22, 2010
| By Ellie Frey |
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Everyone is talking about the initiative to attract and retain the next generation. But what if "attracting" and "retaining" isn't enough? What if we have to add another element into that mix — an "educating" element?

I am not talking about college or university education; I am referring to the education you receive by contributing in the workplace, working on a variety of business-related projects, and building a strong portfolio and résumé. A good, quality internship can accomplish the above, all before the intern graduates from college.

Internships are a good thing for the whole family — and, I would add, good for West Michigan. According to the West Michigan Strategic Alliance (www.wm-alliance.org), which is working on a multi-faceted effort to create 25,000 new internships in Michigan in the next five years, up to 80 percent of students stay in the city where they complete their internship.

I personally can attest to that statistic: I interned in Grand Rapids (from Boston) and ended up staying. Internships increase the intellectual capital in West Michigan, which will strengthen our family businesses, the backbone of West Michigan.

In the June 16, 2008, edition of the Grand Rapids Business Journal, Tim Schad, third generation of Nucraft Furniture, asked: "We want our businesses to succeed after our tenure. What should we be doing to help prepare the next generation for family business leadership? The next generation will need the best possible education and a great deal of knowledge about the larger world."

With this in mind, the benefits to a family business creating an internship program are many. Family businesses can expect:

  • Increased productivity: Interns can complete project work.

  • Management opportunities: Interns provide an opportunity to manage for mid-level staff, who are typically responsible for day-to-day direction of interns.

  • A fresh perspective: Interns bring creative energy, fresh ideas, diversity, current technology and a different viewpoint to an organization.

The Family Business Alliance believes that the benefits of an internship are so valuable that it has created an internship program for family businesses and their college-aged next generation. Our mission is to help family-owned businesses succeed generation to generation. Providing internship opportunities for the next generation of a family business to intern in a family business other than their own is an ideal way to attract and retain the next generation while allowing them to gain valuable work skills and confidence that can only come from leaving the family nest and flying solo.

"The most beneficial aspect of working outside the family business is the self-confidence that comes from being honestly evaluated for the work you do. When working in the family business, there is always the question about whether you are being evaluated based on who you are, rather than what you have done," writes Tim Schad.

Many times, family businesses require their next generation to work outside the family business before returning to the company. Several recognized family businesses in West Michigan have a policy that requires their next generation family to not only have an advanced degree from an accredited college or university, but also spend at least five years working outside the family business. Nucraft Furniture, for instance, has the policy that a family member can't join the business until the age of 30.

An internship builds up a résumé by applying the knowledge learned in college to the workplace. One family business next gen recently joked, "It's not a great idea to intern in your own family's business. Often, you start out on the (manufacturing) floor. If you have to get a job after college before starting with the family business, are your future employers going to ask about your ability to sweep floors?"

Why not encourage your college-aged students to work in another family-owned business? There are opportunities from sales and marketing to chemistry and supply chain. An internship is a great way to see how another family business operates, get to know new systems and processes, build a skill set, and understand the industry from a different perspective, for example, that of a supplier or customer.

Other benefits for the next generation include:

  • Being competitive: Internships are rapidly becoming a differentiator for a student's employability.

  • Learning about another family business: An incredible opportunity to see one's own family's business from a new perspective.

  • Access: Meet with business owners and other family business interns to discuss topics ranging from stock ownership to management transitions. Interns want to feel valued, and opportunities to meet and network with family business management are attractive incentives.

  • Real world work place experience: Students gain a realistic viewpoint of the working world. Real-life projects are key for attracting the next generation.

  • Academic prowess: Students enrolled in internship programs show increased academic performance and a 20 percent greater graduation rate.

What does an internship look like?

Amway Corp. — a family-owned business — provides more than 100 internships each summer. The interns must apply for the program and have a great academic record before being interviewed. They work 40 hours per week for 12 weeks and are paid between $15.50 and $25 per hour, depending upon their level of college education, says Kevin Douglas, manager of college talent and candidate experience. Interns apply for one of many assignments and, once hired, attend an orientation session covering the basics of the company, including dress-code and professional etiquette.

If you are interested in setting up an internship program, there are many organizations that can provide your company with all the necessary information. The West Michigan Strategic Alliance's InternInMichigan.com program is a good place to start. If you have a family business and are interested in working with other family-owned businesses on an internship program, please contact me and I can walk you through our program. We also provide participating members with a Toolkit that includes everything from how to write a job description to the evaluations.

Ellie Frey is director of the Family Business Alliance. Contact her at 616-331-6827 or freyel@gvsu.edu for information on its internship program.

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