How to make internships at your company more productive - for both parties

As a Northerner living in the Deep South, I find the summers here humid, still, oppressive, and interminably long. But it’s not Birmingham’s fault. I am predisposed to tolerating cold weather and enjoyed a childhood in the plains of Illinois where in winter, the wind competed with snowfall for the evening headlines. Many people here in Alabama find a trip to beach to be relaxing and restorative, intermittently trading the sand for water. But that leads me to the next problem. I was about 10 years old when a certain movie came out about a big white shark that dined on beachgoers in New England. I left the movie theater that evening determined to never swim in anything unless I could see black lines painted along the bottom.

There is, however, something about summer that I really, really like: working with interns.

Each year we select a couple of supply chain interns to join our team. And what happens is almost magical. It begins with a detailed curriculum that will account for their time with us. To start, they will spend one week at a distribution center working alongside our superstars to learn what they do and why, experiencing each department. From there they head back to the office, where the heavy lifting begins. Empowered with support, they will complete tactical projects that need work, and then they will further develop at least one major project. These projects are very strategic and have the potential to have a large impact on our operations. The interns are given broad guidelines and are not prejudiced with tenured opinions. Periodic updates keep everyone informed and on track.

They are not just “summer help.” True, we could use some warm bodies to pick up the slack when vacations are taken, but viewing their value strictly in those terms, in my opinion, would be neglecting a terrific opportunity. Because in addition to helping the students learn, we have an opportunity to understand what they are learning in school. And when structured properly, the exchange of information can be transformative…or magical.

This year’s interns really rose to the occasion. The strategic project that they worked on (called “Shark Cage”) exceeded my expectations, and we are in a great position to further develop it. (I’m itching to talk about it, but it could be a game-changer for us so I don’t want to spill the beans.) It was fun to watch the interns as they became more comfortable in a corporate setting and began to demonstrate more confidence.

But I have to give further compliments where they are due. The direction that they receive from our Logistics and DC team is inspiring. Varied in age and gender, this team takes a true interest in developing the next generation. They are supportive and professional, and they make sure to have as much fun as possible along the way. (That's a prerequisite for working in the department.) They appear to be proud of what they do, and I am proud of them.

By now, the end of summer appears to be in sight. Presently, the trees are beginning to blush in anticipation of exposing their limbs, while the cicadas sing their sonnets through sunset. And our two interns have flown the Motion nest.

Before they go, we always do a recap, have some food and ask them how we can be better at helping them learn. And they always get the same parental speech: Remember to update your LinkedIn profile with your latest experience; keep track of your contacts here; routinely network; and go back and look at your social media to make sure it is appropriate as a young professional. And don’t forget to write!

Good luck Amber and Nick; we’re rooting for you!