When student intern Ana Padilla left her job with Sundt Construction in Tucson, Ariz., this past summer, she received plenty of hugs and well- wishes from her colleagues on the Interstate 10-Ina Road interchange project. But when the $120-million reconstruction job wraps up in 2019, Padilla may well be right back with the company.

Padilla, a senior majoring in civil engineering at the University of Arizona, is one of several college interns at Sundt who received job offers pending completion of their degrees. As with other contractors’ programs, Sundt’s internships provide students with real-world experience to complement their classroom studies, as well as an opportunity for the company to cultivate and recruit future employees.

“Every day is a new challenge, and there are always lessons to be learned,” says Padilla, who will graduate in December. “Being in the field and on-site has allowed me to learn skills that are just not taught in the classroom.”

While internships have long been a career- development staple, many contractors have taken a fresh look at their programs’ structure and content in light of the heightened competition for a shrinking talent pool. Craftworkers are already in short supply, but equally coveted are project managers and other tech-savvy business leaders.

A quality internship program also can help students to acclimate to a contractor’s culture. “Internships can also lower recruitment and training costs, as well as turnover,” says Renée Ryan, academic adviser and recruiter for Virginia Tech’s Dept. of Building Construction. “It’s a win-win outcome.”

Internship ABCs

It’s unlikely that many construction interns experience the old stereotype of summer-long menial assignments such as making copies or fetching coffee. But that doesn’t mean a good program can’t be improved upon, especially if a firm hopes to have these students eventually become full-time employees.

“A good internship is a real learning experience, not just a work experience,” Ryan says. “There should be a deliberate focus on learning and participating in what the company does, which includes making the students feel like they’re part of the firm, not just a temporary employee.”

That’s the kind of internship experience Michael Morales has sought to create since becoming Sundt’s talent acquisition specialist in 2014. One issue the firm identified early on was the varying nature and types of construction projects. As a result, year-to-year changes in jobsites and personnel often produced mixed results for interns. “We needed to put something together that would have consistency, from site to site and from year to year,” Morales says.

Now, Sundt’s interns receive an individual learning plan for their 10- to 12-week experience, encompassing areas such as safety, scheduling, field engineering, virtual design, inspections and walk-throughs, and concrete work. “Students know they will spend time shadowing and observing work as well as performing office engineering tasks, such as submitting RFIs,” Morales says.

The efforts have paid off. Sundt has hosted more than 70 interns in the past 12 months, a threefold increase over the past four years. Even better, the percentage of interns who have returned as full-time employees has jumped to 63% from 25%. “Our goal is to have a top-tier conversion rate of more than 70%,” Morales says.

St. Louis-based McCarthy Building Cos. also has invested significantly in its internship program over the past several years. According to R.J. Morris, the firm’s director of talent acquisition, the program typically has up to 160 engineering and construction-management students from 50 universities. Eighty percent of those students leave with a job offer, Morris says. Of those, 90% accept.

“By far, this is the most unusual program we have.”

– R.J. Morris, Director of Talent Acquisition, McCarthy Building Cos.

“There’s not a project manager in the company who didn’t do an internship, either with us or someone else,” Morris says. “They remember what it was like and want to be sure these students get the best experience possible.”

As with Sundt, McCarthy interns follow a detailed development plan that combines observation with engineer-level project tasks under close supervision. Weekly check-ins between the student and his or her project manager ensure that the internship is proceeding as expected and highlight areas that can be improved. Student interns also must give a presentation to senior leadership on industry topics, such as design-build or virtual-design technologies.

“By far, this is the most unusual program the firm has,” Morris says, “so it’s essential to make sure it’s done in a meaningful way.”

Early Engagement

Internships are not the domain of large firms. Washington, D.C.-area general contractor Forrester Construction gives interns responsibilities they fully own, says Lisa Tenley, human-resources manager. “They enjoy having real responsibilities, doing meaningful work and seeing how much they contributed to their projects’ overall success,” Tenley says, citing an aspiring superintendent who, this year, was responsible for managing the project’s elevator subcontractor. “He learned a tremendous amount about field supervision,” Tenley says.

In addition to structure and relevance, quality internship programs also ensure that students are properly mentored. McCarthy’s project managers craft development plans, while an on-site mentor ensures that the internship meets expectations.

“We don’t want students stuck in the back of the trailer,” Morris says. “We want them actively engaged in the project.”

Further, Sundt student interns are paired with a trained mentor who is not their site supervisor. Mentors are typically Sundt employees who are recent graduates and understand campus-to-career transitions. The company provides supervisors and mentors with a pre-arrival checklist with everything from contact information to workspace needs.

Involvement in company activities, such as firmwide meetings and summer picnics, can make a difference, too, says Tenley. “This lets them see the company from different perspectives and build relationships with support-team members,” she notes.

Establishing strong connections can have lasting benefits. “Many students stay in touch with their supervisors and mentors during the semester,” Ryan says. “That kind of relationship will certainly make the firm more attractive if a job is offered.”

Indeed, Ryan estimates that at least 85% of the graduating seniors she works with have at least three job offers from which to choose. “Some even have as many as six or seven,” she adds.

“Eight years ago, there was not much interest in looking at freshmen for internships,” Ryan says. In her program’s freshman class, almost every student who wants an internship now has one, she says.

“By the time they’re seniors, practically everyone has had an internship,” Ryan adds.