Aligning Internship Programming, Experiences With Competencies a Natural Step for Northwestern Mutual

May 17, 2024 | By Kevin Gray

Career Readiness
A group of interns work on a project.

TAGS: best practices, career development, career readiness, diversity and inclusion, Internships, nace insights,

Northwestern Mutual shifting the focus of its internship program to development of career readiness competencies seemed like a natural progression to Rene Howard-Paez, the company’s growth and development strategist. After all, he notes, Northwestern Mutual was already focusing on themes similar to those identified by NACE’s competencies.

“A lot of our new programs and training for interns are influenced by the things that NACE puts out, such as the industry trend reports. We are from the same school of thought,” Howard-Paez says.

“It’s serendipitous that our team tends to think outside of the box from the financial services corporate space in terms of training and development and career readiness. We realized that the way we approach this matches up with the core competencies NACE put forth.”

Howard-Paez’s unit is the corporate back-end home office support for more than 70 network offices across the country that have their own recruiters who train and prepare interns locally.

NACE24: Developing Interns for the Future
Join Rene Howard-Paez and other leaders from Northwestern Mutual at NACE24 to learn about their internship development redesign journey, which focused on career readiness competencies and co-creation. Additionally, collaborate with leaders from both campus and corporate space, and walk away with tangible takeaways to implement in your respective space. More information is available on the NACE24 site.

For its internship and new hire training programs, Northwestern Mutual covers all of the competencies, which it embeds in its programming and experiences. For instance, equity and inclusion is a focus of Northwestern Mutual, so all of its programming is friendly for all learners, regardless of background, and consistently emphasizes that everyone can find success.

“Another key one for us is technology because the way that financial plans are being created and delivered has changed quite rapidly,” Howard-Paez points out.

“Career and self-development is also very important because we feel our internship teaches students just as much about their careers as it does about specific financial planning strategies. Because of the type of work we do and the types of situations we put our interns in, we feel that after the internship, they know more about themselves and develop valuable skills for their careers.”

Within Northwestern Mutual’s programming and work experience, interns get an introduction to financial planning and learn key skills, such as managing time, understanding and using referral language, scheduling meetings with colleagues or clients, and much more.

“Our interns gain that development throughout their time with us, which is very important, but it’s not highlighted on the front end. Given the nature of financial planning, there are larger themes we address while helping them develop skills,” Howard-Paez says.

“However, our internships emulate the role of the full-time financial planner and adviser, so the experience they gain and the competencies they develop enhance the abilities they will use later on.”

Howard-Paez notes that a big benefit of aligning Northwestern Mutual’s work with the NACE competencies is internally adopting the language that is commonly used during URR functions and activities on campus. 

“Our connection with NACE is to equip our leaders with industry best practices, up-to-date knowledge and data, and for them to make those connections so they can communicate and speak the language on campus and articulate what’s happening in the job market and in our industry,” Howard-Paez explains.

“We also listen. Our goal is to make sure that we can deliver what campuses need. If we’re delivering a program that’s no longer relevant to campuses, then we have lost touch. Campuses are getting more and more selective about who they let in and what kind of programs they allow. We have a very nuanced program, which is a good fit for some but not for all students.

“We want to make sure we’re not doing things the same way. If we did, we would be fine and we would have some success, but as we look at the metrics, we would not be serving enough students and exposing Northwestern Mutual to certain markets.”

By participating in the larger ecosystem of college recruiting through its association memberships and partner alignments, Northwestern Mutual is ensuring it’s doing what’s best for the students and that everyone has an opportunity.

“We want our representatives to be connected to the schools. Our best offices connect with the campuses and are almost never there just to recruit students; instead, they’re giving value on campus through resume workshops, interview practice, etiquette dinners, and more. Through these interactions, they build natural relationships that lead to students applying for internships and jobs,” Howard-Paez points out.

Beyond this, he continues, exposing Northwestern Mutual leaders to and aligning the organization with NACE and its other partner organizations is important because it allows leaders to share their lessons, learn from others, and build relationships with URR colleagues and with colleges and universities.

What is one of the key lessons Howard-Paez has learned while leading the shift of Northwestern Mutual’s internship program to development of career readiness competencies?

Says Howard-Paez: “We have to be okay with not converting every student who we come in contact with. Our goal is to bring interns into our company and give them fertile ground to allow them to grow here for their entire career. But that’s not realistic.

“The reality is that we want to build good relationships and add value because that will have greater long-term impact on society, the economy, and more. If interns have good experiences with Northwestern Mutual and are not converted, they will reconnect with us more naturally and fluidly, whether they are a future employee, client, or colleague.” 

blank default headshot of a user Kevin Gray is an associate editor at NACE. He can be reached at