Get ‘Em While They’re Young

At General Electric (GE), internships are often the gateway to full-time positions, and the company has created a formal strategy to ensure its pool of young talent remains full. The company has identified 45 executive schools in the U.S. where it recruits about 70 percent of its hires. Outside the U.S. GE has identified approximately 60 schools where it builds the brand and attracts candidates.

Steve Canale, GE’s manager of global recruiting and staffing services, is responsible for the company’s undergraduate and MBA recruiting and university relations globally. He explained to Talent Management how GE’s early identification process (EID), which every summer includes more than 2,500 internships and cooperative programs that require students to work at a company for upwards of six months, builds the company’s leadership pipeline from the ground up.

What is GE’s internship strategy?
Our internship, or EID programs, are very structured because 70 percent of our full-time leadership program hires come from this population of students, the EIDs. They are our most strategic source of full-time hires. The screening and selection for our EIDs is as stringent as it is for a full-time hire. We’re looking for students who fit the criteria for our full-time executive training programs. They are in the majors that we’re looking for, they have the GPA requirements, and they have the general attributes we’re looking to hire full time. It’s not a friends and family program. It’s a very competitive process, and it’s probably the single best way to get a job in GE.

We view our interns and co-ops as our brand ambassadors on campus. Students believe other students more than they believe a brochure, website, professor or even their parents. If a student has an internship experience at GE, and they go back to school and say my summer at GE was really spectacular, I had a challenging assignment, I worked with someone who really wanted to mentor me, wanted to work with me, that word of mouth is worth more than anything else I can do on campus to promote our brand.

My goal is to make sure they speak well of GE and recommend GE to a friend. If they cut my budget totally, and I only had a $1,000 to spend on recruiting, I would spend it totally on my EID program. The challenge is matching the assignments with the students’ skill sets because we hire not only rising seniors but rising juniors and rising sophomores. At different levels of their academic career, some of the engineers haven’t taken a lot of their core engineering courses yet. That’s a challenge to make sure they’re given the right assignments to stretch but not overwhelm them.

How do you make that happen?
A lot of the assignments we have are structured and repeatable summer after summer. We know certain managers work in certain project areas that require certain skill sets. Our managers are trained to make sure they know what’s expected of a commitment to get an EID. They have to submit a formal job description and explanation of what the student is going to be doing for them, and it has to be approved by an HR person within that business. Also, we have a structured evaluation process. At the end of the summer or the end of the co-op every student is evaluated and documented in terms of how they performed, and feedback is given to the student as well.

Do you pay your interns?
All of our interns are paid. Most of them are provided a housing stipend or in some cases actual housing arrangements. We try to make the overall experience good from a business as well as a social perspective. There are activities that are planned throughout the summer at different sites that have more than 10 interns or co-ops, whether its picnics or ball games. We have training and seminars they can take in their area of study. Some of those are classes on presentation giving or quality tools like Six Sigma. We try to make it a learning experience.

Is that common for organizations to pay and do so much for their interns?
You get what you pay for, and it could be discriminatory if you don’t pay your interns because the only people who can afford to work for nothing are people who come from means. They have to be able to support themselves. We’ve always paid our interns. We look at the EID whole experience as kind of a 90-day interview if you’re here for the summer.

How do you recruit interns, and how does that strategy differ from full-time recruiting efforts?
Many years ago interns were recruited in the springtime, which was nice because it balanced the fall when we heavily recruited full-time seniors who were graduating. Over the last 10 years interns and co-ops are recruited heavily in the fall as well. Eighty percent of our 2,500 or so interns and co-ops were hired in the last couple months, and we’ll be going back to campus in the springtime for the remainder. It’s skewed more heavily toward the fall than ever before, and as more companies do it you have to in order to get the best students. By the time springtime comes a lot of the best students are already gone.

What happens in the internship?
From a student’s perspective the internship serves two purposes. One, it’s the best way to get a job with the company. Second, it helps to validate what you’re studying in school and their direction, what they want to do. We’ve had some students come, rising sophomores and juniors, and say now that I know what engineering is all about I don’t know if I want to make a career in that area. Interns that work for GE or other big companies, whether it’s IBM or Accenture or the accounting firms, it helps to build their personal brand because on their resume, whether they work for GE or not, they’ve worked for a reputable company that has a brand that other employees will recognize.

What happens after the internship ends? Do you stay in touch with your interns?
We actually interview students that are graduating during the summer before they leave, and many of them will get a job offer before they go back to school. Our goal is to send them home with a job offer. The students not graduating the following year, many of them we’ll invite back, the good ones. We also keep in touch with them with a newsletter. Some businesses use Facebook, sometimes it’s email. We encourage managers to stay involved to make sure there is that personal touch. We’ve learned over the years that people join companies because of the people that they meet and people that they work for.

Have you determined the retention rate for interns?
The students that we hire that have interned with GE have a higher retention rate than the students we hired as seniors. They’ve been with us for at least 90 days so they know what our culture is like, they know what to expect and it’s less risky for us to hire somebody we’ve been able to work with versus a couple of hours of interviews.