BY NEIL COTIAUX
Snyder joined Cleveland Whiskey as an intern in 2012, tasked with developing a business plan for one facet of the operation.
A 24-year-old graduate of Lake Erie College, with a degree in entrepreneurship, Snyder is now an employee, a jack-of-all-trades who is engaged in aging product, bottling, and repairing equipment. The company accelerates the aging of bourbon by chopping up pieces of the white-oak barrels in which it is delivered and dropping them into the tanks in which it is stored, then pressurizing the bourbon and bringing the 100-proof product to market more quickly.
Cleveland Whiskey, like many smaller companies across Northeast Ohio, has found that internships can open the spigot to a steady stream of qualified employees, often at relatively low cost and with limited risk.
Because companies in their early years are smaller, it is easier to involve interns and even some employees in a variety of functions, Tom Lix, who founded Cleveland Whiskey in 2009, says. “As a startup, you never know what’s going to happen.”
Lix recruited Snyder and another intern while teaching at Lake Erie College. Knowing his students well allowed him to recruit quality interns, he says. With a third position, however, he took a different tack.
Approached by the Ohio Export Internship Program, Lix met Lydia Backscheider, who, at the time, was a third-year student at OSU’s Fisher College of Business.
Lix brought Backscheider on board to research overseas markets and create a detailed blueprint for exports. He says using a subsidized, college-based internship constituted a trade off.
“We spent some time on that one. … The structure came from the program itself and less from us,” he says.
Still, Lix believes the more tightly structured arrangement proved worthwhile not only because of its 50 percent reimbursement of intern wages but also due to its tangible results.
In February hundreds of bottles of bourbon were trucked out of Cleveland Whiskey’s East 25th Street facility, the first leg of a shipment to Germany and its first-ever order for export.
When recruiting interns, Lix looks for proof that candidates can absorb stress, engage customers, and juggle priorities.
He’s also mindful that the days of unpaid internships at for-profit companies are mostly over.
In the last few years, many private-sector programs have been found to violate the Fair Labor Standards Act, according to a March 2015 article in The National Law Review. Federal regulations take a very broad view of what is considered employment, and exclusions for unpaid interns are “quite narrow” and keyed to a multipronged test, the Review says.
Lix and other employers are mindful of evolving law.
Lix generally starts his interns at $10 an hour and provides them with workers’ compensation and other mandated items consistent with their hourly status.
Beyond regulations, he feels that paying interns is simply fair. “They’ve got housing bills, they’ve got tuition bills,” he says.
He also remembers not to recruit interns under the age of 21. “We’re sampling products,” Lix notes dryly.
BUILDING A PIPELINE
At Consolidus in Akron and The Learning Egg in Youngstown, establishing a sustainable relationship with an institution of higher education is key to recruiting interns with specialized aptitudes.
Jeff Jones, founder and CEO of Consolidus, which helps clients create a uniform brand identity through organizational bulk purchasing, believes such niche internships represent a solid opportunity to vet new hires.
Jones returned to his office one recent Friday after spending the day at a career fair at the University of Akron. There, he distributed customized cards with messages for recruits in customer service and sales, graphic design, marketing, and web content — all functions to be performed by interns this year.
“Don’t assign responsibilities that aren’t pertinent to their field,” Jones says flatly.
Wages vary and are pegged to the intern’s current level of expertise and the sophistication of their assignment, he says, adding that Consolidus structures its internships around projects rather than customers, so it is easier for interns to come and go between work and campus.
At The Learning Egg, CEO Elijah Stambaugh also believes in hiring specialists. His company markets The Lightning Grader, a computerized grading program that is an alternative to the stacks of paper that often overwhelm teachers.
Stambaugh uses interns throughout the calendar year. “If they’re good, I like to ramp them up for the summertime and then ramp them down,” he says.
Because academics consume an increasing amount of time as a semester progresses, Stambaugh front-end loads his recruits. He encourages them to “hit the ground running” after setting mutual expectations and milestones.
At midterms and finals, he says, “You don’t want to kill them.”
Jones and Stambaugh are mindful of the accountabilities that come with internships. Each conducts exit interviews that are formal or informal, depending on the degree of reporting required.
At Vizion Solutions — named Best New Internship at The Expys in 2014 — management is taking its “Connect!” internship initiative to heart. Past interns benefited from specialized oversight, housing stipends, and delivering lunch-and-learn presentations.
Now, the Independence-based information technology services provider plans to use Connect to follow former interns wherever they go.
In 2013, the program’s first year, two of four interns accepted full-time positions at Vizion, but in 2014, none did.
Looking forward, Vizion views its internships — focused on business intelligence and application development consulting — to be worth the cost.
“It’s a pretty low investment to take that risk,” Annette Kramer, director of talent management, who cites project support, balancing company scheduling, and successfully recruiting new hires as achievements, says.
Kramer is focusing on staying in touch with those no longer on the Vizion campus. She connects with them on LinkedIn and is developing a series of alumni lunches and a newsletter to provide her company with a foot in the door where former interns are employed.
“They may have a favorable view of what we do and what we have to offer,” she says.
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