The A/E/C industry continues to face fierce competition for the best employees – with both technical education or qualifications and cultural fit topping the requirements list for culture-driven firms. The value of student internships as a source of talent, especially with the current hiring climate and shortage of candidates across industries, cannot be underestimated. The internship, intended to provide an income stream, real-time training in a chosen industry, and a potential job after graduation, is arguably more important than it’s ever been. Since the onset of the pandemic, 46.2% of students now judge internships to be even more valuable per data gathered by Remote Internships; however, over 38% of interns had a summer internship canceled and were unable to find a replacement position. The internship remains an integral mix in the student experience and the desire to secure one continues to top the lists for students and new graduates.
Breaking Down the Myths
According to Business Insider, US companies save nearly $2B per year due to internship programs, mostly attributed to tax laws and a favorable hiring climate. However, the perception by employers that internships are expensive overhead, benefit only the intern, and disrupt existing staff persists. One company, however, has found a way to give back, mentor up-and-coming engineers, and provide a transition for students from education to a professional career, while finding the best employees for their unique culture and environment.
The Root of the Internship
Two decades before Brian J. Sielaff, PE, P.Eng. founded Tamarack Grove Engineering (TGE), he was a typical student looking for an internship. He began seeking a position early in his academic career, meeting with little success. “I tried to get an internship throughout school. Opportunities were limited and I didn’t secure one until I was close to graduating, and then all I did was review shop drawings. I wasn’t learning the business, the industry, my field, or standard processes, and I certainly wasn’t receiving training,” said Sielaff. He never forgot the difficulties of searching for the right internship nor the relief when he got his first opportunity.
As Sielaff single-handedly built his own engineering firm during the beginning of the recession of 2007 he sought interns to help with fluctuating workloads but had not hired an intern to work alongside him as a full-time employee coming out of the Great Recession. That all changed in 2011 when engineering student Doug Hardin accepted Sielaff’s offer of an internship. After interning for more than a year, Hardin sought full-time employment with TGE and was eventually offered a position as the firm's first intern-turned-employee. While Sielaff had questions about the right time to hire full-time employees for his new firm, he remained committed to a long-held belief that his company should invest in the future of the engineering profession – both for the betterment of the industry as well as his firm.
Benefits to the Firm: Recruiting, Retention & Training
TGE, an Idaho-based structural engineering and design firm, believes that with the right environment, an employer can build and mold future employees while creating loyalty. “Internship programs can be expensive, take time to build, and can stress existing staff due to ongoing training and mentoring. But, when you set the right foundation, interns benefit and appreciate the investment made in them. Loyalty is often the result,” said Sielaff.
Today, over a decade later, Hardin is a licensed engineer and a partner at TGE. He has been instrumental in building and growing the firm’s internship program to levels never imagined. Up to seven interns, the majority from Boise State University, work at the firm at any one time with TGE realizing that not only does this feed the recruiting effort, it helps with employee retention. Both Sielaff and Hardin agree that the internship program has been significant in building TGE’s culture.
“We have a fun, upbeat vibe, and our interns bring that energy. We appreciate them for what they offer — an openness to mentoring and hungry to learn — and that they don’t have bad habits to unlearn. Experienced engineers might want more challenging projects, but the interns we want on board enjoy working on a variety of projects, take on challenges, and always ask why. They add to our culture individually and learn the ‘TGE way’ right from the start,” said Hardin who also acknowledges that the firm would not have experienced the substantial growth it has if hiring was limited to experienced professionals.
“Of our current 28 full-time engineering staff, 13 began as engineering interns. We get to show the student who we are, what we do, and most importantly the ‘why’ behind our culture. It’s a way to give back to the industry, mentor and teach the next generation, and in the very end use it as recruitment for our firm. It’s a win-win for everyone,” says Sielaff.
Reasons to Hire Interns
Give back to the industry
Teach best practices
Introduce your company’s processes and procedures
Build future staff while impacting retention
Create relationships and loyalty
Ensure cultural fit
Expand your recruiting program
Benefits to Clients
Clients also benefit enormously from TGE’s win-win internship mentality which allows the firm to service clients better from a cost and efficiency standpoint. Happy, knowledgeable staff produce quality work and interact better with clients. A properly trained intern with supervision and guidance can produce a high volume of work, and cost savings can be realized on a project, which are then passed on to the client. Project schedules also benefit enormously from shortened turnaround times due to the resources provided by interns.
At TGE, more than one-third of the current staff started as interns and over 50% of interns are offered a full-time position by TGE. Intern Paul Yenor notes:
“It’s easy for an intern to feel as if they’re a burden, but my co-workers have taught me and helped me grow in every aspect of the job. TGE is an awesome place to work.” - Paul Yenor
All Internships are Not Alike
“TGE’s internship program differs a bit from the industry — we’re a smaller company yet we have many ongoing internships. We view the program differently and value the individual contribution of every intern,” says Hardin. One recent intern-turned-employee, project engineer Rylie Frei, notes:
“My internship with TGE was extremely beneficial to my client communication skills, understanding of industry standards, and overall structural engineering knowledge.” - Rylie Frei, E.I.
A key factor of TGE’s internship program is customization. Students design their working experience to fit their education schedule from part-time during the school year, full-time during summers, or only working summers. While interns are gaining valuable real-world experience in an office environment, they are learning a firm’s processes and procedures, doing production, interacting with technical staff in the field, taking client calls, and more. “I am passionate about why this is so important. Our interns are thoroughly trained and eventually doing what our full-time engineers do, under oversight and mentorship all along the way.” After their internship training by TGE staff — trained at intern rates —employees thoroughly know the company, clients, and markets, and can hit the ground running. TGE has found that the investment expended on the front end for training is recouped once interns become full-time employees. Internships also show the quality of work that they can produce while giving firm leaders the opportunity to evaluate if they are a good fit with the team and mesh with firm culture.
At TGE, interns don’t only review shop drawings or make copies. From day one, they are actively trained and treated as full-time staff on a smaller scale with deadlines, and accountability, communicating with clients and managing their own small projects. “At every step of the way, we strive to provide interns with real-world, hands-on experience. We empower them from the beginning to learn all aspects of the business,” said Hardin. The true win-win of this arrangement occurs when the intern gets the immersive experience of experiential learning in their field, is exposed to new technologies not present in the academic setting, and has a chance to adapt to a firm’s culture while interfacing regularly on projects with staff and clients.
Don’t Play the Waiting Game
While there is much to be gained by hiring interns from local educational institutions, foreign sponsorships are also a way to widen your recruiting network and change the lives of engineering students. A shortage of qualified applicants led TGE to explore the sponsorship of a Nepalese intern. The relationship resulted in a connection to an engineer in Nepal striving to open his own firm. TGE partnered with the firm in Nepal building an alliance that allowed the firm to open on sound footing in their native country while receiving training in TGE’s processes and expectations. “Investing in the sponsorship of a Nepalese intern opened doors for TGE we never considered. Because of time zone differences, TGE is able to produce documents with an unprecedented 24-hour turnaround, greatly adding value to our clients,” said Sielaff. “We are very proud of the internship program at TGE. I can’t imagine a better way to give back to the firm, our clients, the engineering community, and a student looking for their first opportunity,” said Sielaff.
About Tamarack Grove Engineering
Tamarack Grove Engineering specializes in manufacturing, commercial, facilities, and modular markets serving clients throughout North America by providing responsive, safe, and trusted engineering design solutions of the highest quality and integrity. For information on how the firm can help you on your next project or to inquire about hiring opportunities, contact TGE’s CEO, Brian J. Sielaff, PE, PEng.
About the Author
Brian J. Sielaff, PE, PEng., specializes in building design, design development, investigative and forensic engineering, and project management. As CEO at TGE, he oversees all work, production, and client relationships. Brian serves as Chairman of the Building Systems Council, NAHB.