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Investing in interns: part 1

World Cement,

CalPortland Company (CPC), founded in 1891 and headquartered near Los Angeles, California, is a major producer of cement, concrete, aggregates and asphalt in the western US and Canada. CPC attributes much of its business success to developing and maintaining a corporate culture that encourages employees to develop their skills and experience over many years. Employees often live out their entire careers under the CalPortland umbrella and, even today, multiple generations of families are employed at the company.

The recent recession had a dramatic downturn effect on the construction industry, causing layoffs, early retirements and reduced hiring. For CPC, recovery from the downturn has been slow, but deliberate. The company took a hard look at every aspect of the business, including the remaining workforce. With more than 50% of the company-wide workforce over the age of 50 and 13% over the age of 60, succession planning was the top objective. Mindful of controlling costs, CPC executed a game plan in these key areas:

  1. Retaining the existing talent.
  2. Developing the remaining workforce for internal opportunities.
  3. Attracting new talent, including recent college graduates.

This article will focus on CPC’s carefully crafted summer intern programme, which became the cornerstone for attracting and retaining a new generation of top talent.

Intern programme

Although CalPortland had employed a few summer interns in the past, in 2013 an actual company-wide programme was implemented. Given that cost control was still a primary business objective, in order to be effective the summer intern programme needed to meet several objectives.

During the first year, the programme was limited to the Engineering and Operations departments, where manpower requirements were most critical. Managers were asked to submit job descriptions for work in their departments that could be completed and measured over an eight to nine week period. Each assignment was reviewed for job content that would provide meaningful learning and practical work experience for a summer intern. All assignments required department executive approval.

Marketing and recruitment

Internship opportunities were marketed at local universities known for educating highly qualified engineering students that were appropriate for the cement and construction materials industry. With the shortage of engineering students in general, recruiting for CalPortland internships offered an additional challenge. The cement and construction materials industry does not initially have the same attraction as such companies as Google or Apple. However, once an intern discovers the technology required to operate the plants, the types of projects being engineered and the range of equipment used, they become excited about the prospects of a challenging and long career in the industry. Cement production is one of the most complicated and fascinating processes in all of industry and requires a broad range of technical disciplines, including chemistry, geology and computer science, as well as engineering disciplines such as chemical, electrical, mechanical, civil, mining, environmental and energy.

The application process

The selection process for candidates who had the potential for future full-time positions was taken very seriously and the interns were interviewed by hiring managers and the Human Resources department.

CalPortland aimed to integrate interns into the company environment, expose them to the various operations and technologies and further evaluate their fitness for full-time employment after graduation. This strategy also provided interns with a chance to fully experience CPC, as well as the industry and the culture.

Students of CalPortland employees who attended target universities were encouraged to apply. These students came equipped with an understanding and interest in the industry. It was determined that it was most effective to target junior-level students as they had completed enough of the core coursework and had mostly obtained the relevant certifications.

Management and integration

In order to provide an effective experience for both the organisation and the intern, the role of the intern’s manager was critical. Each manager understood that their role as mentor could make or break the overall experience. Participants took their responsibilities very seriously and the interns benefitted from working closely with a manager with many years of experience, coupled with a passion for the industry.

It was important to give the interns a CPC experience beyond their immediate work area. As a group, the interns attended a new hire orientation meeting covering CPC history, locations, products, markets, customers and company values and culture. Interns were able to meet one another, network and share experiences. Many of the interns travelled to other locations for additional hands-on work experience and some were able to participate in locally sponsored activities – involvement in the local community is a key value for CalPortland.

Read part 2 here.

Written by Betsy Lamb and Stephen J. Coppinger, CalPortland Company, USA. This is an abridged version of the full article, which appeared in the April 2015 issue of World Cement. Subscribers can read the full article by logging in. They can also read the magazine on smart phones and tablets by downloading World Cement’s app.

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