Lessons Learned Last Year Help Develop Internship Program Going Forward

May 17, 2021 | By Kevin Gray

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TAGS: best practices, coronavirus, Internships, nace insights, operations, technology,

Spotlight for Recruiting Professionals

It is very easy for university relations and recruiting (URR) functions to get tunnel vision when working on a large, stressful project like pivoting an entire internship class to remote, says Jill Craven, university relations manager at Cree | Wolfspeed.

“In the same breath and at that same moment,” Craven continues, “we were transitioning applicant tracking systems and other systems for easier HR access. It took us quite a few steps to realize that we needed to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.”

The lessons Craven and Cree | Wolfspeed’s URR team learned during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic have helped inform their preparation for this summer’s program and beyond. First, Craven, who will present with Tamara Pearce, diversity, equity and inclusion director, about their work during the NACE 2021 Conference & Expo, says the URR team considered the “downstream impact” of the move to virtual.

“We identified the main players who would be affected by this because it wasn’t just going to be the interns,” she explains.

“It was our onboarding team, our HR representatives, our payroll and IT groups.”

For example, before the transition, Cree | Wolfspeed mailed checks to its interns.

“Now that interns are not on site, their checks are all delivered via direct deposit,” Craven says.

“We looked to determine how tasks like that—even small ones—impact the greater team’s workload.”

The Cree | Wolfspeed URR team tries as early as possible to get the supply chain started for IT and equipment, taking into account different situations for different interns. For instance, some interns live in very rural areas that don’t offer strong Wi-Fi, so that needs to be addressed prior to the program’s start.

Perhaps the key component of Cree | Wolfspeed’s successful transition to virtual was empathy and appreciation, which had already been foundational values of the firm.

“One of our big values is to say ‘thank you,’ which may sound silly, but it means much more for us,” Craven explains.

“We want to make sure we are appreciating each other for individual contributions and appreciating how much work goes into what we do on a daily basis. We applied that to our internship program. When you think about the challenges these interns had to overcome—as we all did—interns had to go to school remotely, do internships remotely, and didn’t know what was in store for them in the fall semester.”

During every interaction, URR team members and intern managers reinforced that interns can come to talk with them. The team set up one-on-one meetings to check in with interns, held feedback sessions, and made the mentorship program virtual, so mentors could connect with interns and provide them with additional support.

To address interns’ feelings of being disconnected—which was inevitable with social distancing, travel bans, and other restrictions—Cree | Wolfspeed added events, such as an engineering challenge, to help them connect virtually. At the end of the program, URR team members and managers wrote personal cards and notes to their interns.

“It is very important to lead with empathy when working with interns and cross-functional teams to get the internship program up and running,” Craven notes.

“Some of the interns weren’t sure if it was worth continuing with their degree, but they were really able to enjoy what they were doing here. It was just such a bumpy time that we wanted to let the interns know that if they needed a shoulder to cry on, vent to, lean on, or other, we were there for them. Empathy really went a long way. It ended up helping the company, too, but that’s not really what we were going for.”

Craven says that 40% of Cree | Wolfspeed’s summer 2021 group is interns who are returning from last summer. In addition, among the interns from last summer who graduate this year, 78% who received an offer of full-time employment with the firm accepted it.

“The return rate is one of the biggest measures of our success,” Craven explains.

“It shows us that the interns see the opportunities that Cree | Wolfspeed offers and that they value the projects that they work on and the people they work with. At the end of each summer, we have a presentation week, during which interns present the projects, the challenges they faced working on them, and how they got to the end result.

“We had more successful projects last year than we ever had before and our interns were genuinely passionate about the work they did. This led to us receiving more requests for interns because our employees were excited to become intern managers based off of the amazing work interns did last year. These are some of the intangibles that point to the success of our virtual internship program.”

This summer, the URR team is adding in more social events, such as a Netflix Party movie night for interns so they can watch a movie and chat on the side, trivia parties, and scavenger hunts.

“Also, because we are an engineering company, we will have engineering challenges, such as an egg drop challenge,” Craven says.

“Last year, we had a catapult challenge. We shipped out supplies for the interns and they built a catapult. They got so creative with it and it was fun to watch their videos.”

In preparation for its virtual internships this year, she adds, Cree | Wolfspeed has also updated its systems to ensure everything is running smoothly and solicited input from each internal team to ask them how they are impacted by moves to remote internships.

“Last year, we were running to try to catch up with everything,” Craven recalls.

“It was very difficult to do that. This year, were able to take a step back and give ourselves the time and space to see the broader picture.”

For example, Cree | Wolfspeed is implementing a “work where it works” policy for all employees, who, depending on their job requirements, can come into the office several days a week or remain completely remote as long as the job can be done offsite and the manager approves the arrangement. 

“In the future, I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to extend that to interns,” Craven says.

“Our IT and accounting interns, for instance, would be able to work remotely. Doing so would add a good amount of flexibility to our internship program to possibly allow more interns to come on site.”

Jill Craven and Tamara Pearce will present “Not Your Average Internship: Navigating the Virtual Future” during the NACE 2021 Conference & Expo.