A win-win situation Featured

9:44am EDT July 22, 2002
Blaine Walter, president of Gerbig, Snell/Weisheimer & Associates, was familiar with the company’s internship program long before joining the firm.

As a senior in high school, he spent two weeks at Gerbig, a Columbus full-service marketing communications agency.

“I really got an opportunity to understand how an agency functions,” he says.

Later, he spent a summer during his college career interning at Gerbig.

Today, Walter takes the internship process very seriously.

“What we have tried to do is look at the program as a two-way opportunity,” he explains.

It’s an opportunity for the firm to get extra hands and bring vitality into the organization. For the interns, it’s a chance to gain insight into something that interests them — something that correlates with their academic studies. In short, it’s a win-win situation.

According to Gerbig director of human resources Karen Artis, the firm handles 10 to 12 interns a year. That number is expected to rise when the company moves into its new Polaris headquarters later this year.

“This is next to being a perfect place for people who are trying to decide what they want to be when they grow up,” she says, “We try to give people a broad feel for some of the things they can do.”

A fine arts major who recently graduated from Ohio University and who had interned at Gerbig for two summers during college was looking for a design internship. After her first summer at Gerbig, the company eagerly looked forward to her return, even planning work for this highly talented individual.

Today, she is a full time Gerbig employee.

“Every now and then, you find some of those diamonds in the rough,” says Artis. “They may not have years of experience, but there’s something innate in them.”

Nuts and bolts

Most Gerbig interns are high school juniors and seniors who work summers, but at the college level, internships vary from two weeks to nine months. Because the type of internship varies, the level of expertise required is mixed as well.

“We are looking for a basic understanding, but we also consider that our job is to teach,” says Walter, emphasizing the importance of insuring a good fit when someone comes on board.

The level of necessary expertise has a lot to do with the area in which they will work, as well as the amount of their contribution.

Whether an intern is paid depends on the amount of investment both ways, as well as on what somebody is trying to accomplish. If someone has a couple years of college behind them and wants to spend a summer interning at Gerbig, they would be paid. A high school senior spending a couple weeks or a month, and making far less of a contribution, would not be paid.

Walter says he doesn’t look at the cost of an intern as important.

“I think the costs are insignificant if you can find somebody that is excited about what you are doing, particularly in this type of labor market,” he says. “Because we have learned a little bit about each other through the internship, that person may be able to join the firm down the road.”

Sandy Clary, principal at Clary Communications, a marketing communications firm, agrees.

“We can look at some of our more recent interns for possible positions. We know who is talented,” she says.

Julie Graham Price, Clary account supervisor, runs the company’s internship program.

“Often, we will go to our file of previous interns when we have a job opening. That intern is a known quantity,” she says.

Clary Communications has worked with hundreds of interns during its 16-year history. Some of its first associates were originally interns.

While Price agrees that everyone benefits in an internship relationship, she says time is the biggest cost. The employer wants to supervise closely, she says, and is acting as a mentor. But although it requires additional time, the benefits are well worth it.

“We are getting a student with high skills, and they are getting good experience,” she adds. Clary interns are paid $7 an hour.

At Clary, interns are primarily public relations students who intern for either a quarter or a semester, depending on the school. Generally, summer internships are full time, while those during the school year are part time. This company of 13 full-time employees has at least one intern at all times.

“I am seeing that many (college) programs are requiring students to have an internship,” says Price. “They will give college credit for it.”

It’s a chance for students to do a test run on a career, to see if they have an interest. In some cases, it’s something they hadn’t considered.

Finding good interns

“There’s as tight a market for interns as there is the rest of the market,” says Price.

To recruit good interns, she works with college advisers on a regular basis. She also posts fliers at schools with communications and public relations majors. In addition, the Central Ohio chapter of the Public Relations Society has a Web site at which companies can post internships. Word of mouth is also useful, with previous interns helping to recruit new ones.

At Gerbig, Walter emphasizes the importance of bringing the right person on board.

“It’s easy to bring people in,” he says, “The challenge is to provide a program that will accomplish the objectives.”

For this reason, the hiring of interns is really no different than the hiring of entry-level employees, and the application process is similar. At Clary, applicants are not only interviewed, but also screened with a writing test.

Both firms agree that it’s rare that an intern doesn’t work out, probably because applicants are screened so carefully. Walter also points out that interns in general are students who take their careers pretty seriously.

“There’s a lot of self screening and self selection,” he says. “They are actually quite motivated.”

Artis agrees that these are usually people who have a good idea of what they want to do.

“For them, it’s like a kid in a candy store. They get a taste of all areas of the business,” she says, adding that Gerbig interns get a broad feel for what they can do, because the agency is so complex and diverse in terms of what it does.

Confidentiality

The issue of confidentiality arises when temporary workers enter a company, yet both companies say there are few problems. At Gerbig, a standard confidentiality agreement is used, mainly to show respect to the firm’s clients. Walter suggests that close supervision is necessary, along with good judgment about when and how much to include an intern.

In Gerbig’s case, the company seeks the permission of the client before bringing an intern into a situation.

“It’s amazing how passionate people are about internship programs. Our clients have been very supportive,” says Walter.

Evaluation

Both companies strive to maintain communication throughout the internship period, and, in some cases, after the internship is completed. This helps each party understand the other’s objectives. At Gerbig, interns have somebody they can go to, perhaps to say, “I was hoping I might be getting more exposure to media,” for instance. At Clary, an exit interview reviews what was accomplished and makes sure interns have copies of everything for their portfolio, Price says. It’s also a time to talk about the high and low points of the experience.

To help celebrate the firm’s 15th anniversary, Clary Communications invited back all the interns it could find. Price says it’s fun to see how everybody turned out and catch up with what they’re doing. In some cases, the relationship has continued long after the initial internship period.

While Artis admits that the talent pool is getting smaller, internship programs remain a good way to attract individuals early, groom them, and perhaps utilize them later. Walter sees a trend in which individuals are trying to latch onto a career earlier in life. The pace moves faster and the process starts sooner, propelling the popularity of internship programs.

Clary is more than just a little enthusiastic about her company’s internship program. “It keeps us in touch with the young talent. It enables us to bolster our staff and interact with people with new skills.” she says.

“And it’s fun to watch them as they develop into professionals and see them go out and conquer the world.”

Lori Murray (Lori3204@aol.com) is a free-lance writer for SBN.