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By Deanna Molinelli | April 13, 2023

What Makes for A Winning Early Career Professionals and Intern Program

Everyone starts somewhere. Here’s how we can make this experience successful for employees, our businesses and our next generation of talent.

One of the most important things I’ve learned as an Early Career Talent Acquisition Partner is that a successful early careers or internship program takes into account what a candidate can achieve for themselves and the team they are joining with the proper on-the-job training and upskilling. You cannot just consider their capabilities at the time of hire, but rather their ability to grow – along with their available time, personal interests and potential contributions.

That’s because, as recruiters, we must always be mindful of the ultimate goal. Spoiler alert: it’s not just to fill an open role. 

The goal is to build and retain a workforce that will enable a company to advance its greater strategy. This workforce should be complex and diverse – people of varying ages, backgrounds, genders, races, beliefs, life experiences and skillsets – if you want to continue offering a better product and/or service to a world as complex and diverse as our own.

Early careers professionals, generally people with 0-3 years of work experience in their current career field, are uniquely positioned to help companies thrive in this generation and the next. They bring fresh perspectives to their workplaces, whether in a new role or as a completely new employee, often recognizing opportunities for improvement. 

And the businesses that propagate the harmful notion that interns’ duties should be limited to coffee runs and busy work, all without compensation? They’ll have a hard time transitioning promising talent into full-time roles – or even recognizing talent at all. 

So, what makes for an early career and/or internship program that provides a rewarding and fulfilling experience? Read on to learn about the strategies my colleagues and I have found most successful when developing Zebra’s award-winning Early Careers program:

Meeting Talent Where They Are

1. Be Open to Flexible Work Arrangements

As recently as 2019, primarily working from home was a rarity. Fast forward to today, fewer than half (44%) of college-aged adults surveyed plan to have a traditional (Monday-Friday, 9-to-5) in-person job, and one-in-four never expect to hold a traditional office job. 

Flexible work arrangements are increasingly important for recruiting early careers professionals – now the rule, rather than the exception, for roles that do not require daily access to a facility and/or specialized equipment. Meeting talent where they are means meeting their expectations related to where they want to work. So, for the first time in 2022, our internships were a mix of in-person, hybrid and fully remote. The feedback was resoundingly positive. 

2. Demonstrate a Commitment to Inclusion and Diversity (I&D) 

Another major component of meeting the expectations of early careers professionals is an overarching commitment to I&D. On top of extensive and thoughtful programming to foster a culture where every employee is seen, heard, valued and respective, it’s important for hiring companies to showcase their work among prospective employees. 

Throughout recruitment season, we are present and engaged with diversity outreach partners like the National Society of Black Engineers, the Society of Women Engineers, Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM), Inc. and at events held by Historically Black Colleges and Universities. We believe these efforts were a major contributor to the 68% of internship applicants we had from diverse backgrounds in our 2021-2022 recruitment cycle.

3. Let’s Get Digital

The National Survey of College Internships found in a 2021 survey the most common reason for not taking an internship was a lack of knowledge about how to find one. Given the digital economy we live in, recruiters need to leverage innovative tools and digital systems to ensure candidates can find open positions, apply with relative ease and connect with potential employers. 

We must understand what it’s like to be a job seeker in the 21st century – and it is our responsibility as employers to adequately advertise open roles. It’s not uncommon for candidates to submit upwards of 100 applications in part because many won’t see as much as an email confirming their resume will be reviewed. Add in the complications of interviewing when an applicant does not currently reside in the location where they plan to within the next year (especially for military members separating from service, out-of-state college students, those fleeing turmoil, or people relocating to be closer to friends or family), those employers who make an effort to reduce these burdens will be the ones best poised to find a perfect fit. 

At Zebra, we rely on applicant tracking systems, video interviewing and online recruiting platforms to ensure candidates have the opportunity to check the status of their applications, connect with others about their experiences and learn about what it’s like to be a Zebra. We also hold ourselves to a 24-48 response time standard because we value candidates’ time and interest.

Getting Talent Where They Want to Be

1. Begin With an End in Mind

Some applicants are students looking for a summer internship to gain experience between years of schooling, while others are more seasoned professionals looking to try out a new role – or college graduates wanting experience with a different company – who expect to immediately transition into a permanent, salaried role if mutual expectations are met. And there are some applicants who are in-between, perhaps looking to transition their summer internship into a part-time role while they complete schooling and to be hired upon graduation. 

Take yourself back to your first professional job and imagine you just completed a three-month internship with the company of your dreams. You loved the role, exceeded your supervisor’s expectations and are now ready to work for this company for at least the next three years. Now imagine your supervisor tells you they don’t have the budget to create a new role and you find out they knew this before you even interviewed. This is an unfortunate reality for countless early career professionals. It also bodes very poorly upon the employer who loses promising talent, investment in training resources and endorsement by former employees.

Retention is one of the big benefits of internship and co-op programs. In fact, one study revealed that for hires with internal experience as an intern or co-op, retention rates ranged from 73-75%, whereas those with external experience or no experience were around 50%.

A winning early careers, internship or rotational program relies on transparency and mutual understanding of position needs and personal requirements. Hiring managers and early-career program applicants should communicate openly about potential for what’s next, especially for time-limited roles.

There’s also a need for flexibility. This means taking into account that there may not be a single endpoint in mind for an early career candidate. 

2. Accommodate for Transferrable Skills and Ranges of Interests

Early careers professionals may accept a role in the general sphere of their capabilities even if it’s not the exact position they sought. Others may work a few months or years in the role they originally wanted but later learn they’d like to pursue something else. Both situations are common and there’s nothing wrong with either. In fact, one survey found nearly 25%of respondents who completed an internship did so to explore different career options. We’re all human – our needs change, our interests and skillsets evolve, and our five-year plans are re-calibrated. Just ask our Chief Human Resources & Marketing Officer, Jeff Schmitz, whose degrees are in computer science and electrical engineering!

Beginning with an end in mind can also mean beginning with multiple ends in mind. We can do this by offering early-career employees insight into other roles and taking their individual skills into account.

What does this look like? It looks like formal and informal mentorships, shadowing other roles and touring every floor of your facilities or offices. It can also be as simple as asking early career professionals what they do well or what they’re interested in and then introducing them to a colleague with whom you know they have something in common.

In the spirit of giving early career employees a chance to explore their potential interests while getting to know the company better, we offer a three-year rotational program to expose graduates to various functions within a given business unit. A graduate completing our Finance Development Program, for example, might spend a year at a time hyper-focused on each of these areas: internal audit, commercial finance, and treasury. This rotational program allows participants to build skills and experience from different vantage points, ultimately gaining a well-rounded perspective and determining where they fit best. 

3. Exposure, Exposure, Exposure

There’s a reason undergraduate students need to complete general education (“Gen Ed”) courses that are often seemingly unrelated to their majors and areas of study. The goal is to produce well rounded graduates – take an architect who can better recall fire code because of tragic incidents they learned of in history courses, or a prosecutor who wins a case because they know there’s a mathematical certainty that events did not occur as claimed. Additionally, students may discover interests and skills they didn’t know they had. 

The same can be true for the workplace. Exposing newer employees to various facets of the business – from the laboratory to warehouse floor to the board room, or from finance to marketing – can ultimately help build the workforce your company needs. Some may decide to switch roles, but not companies, proving a good investment in training. And for those who remain comfortable in their current role, they’ll have a better understanding of all the people and processes required for cross-functional collaboration.

Our intern class and rotational programming includes access to an education network filled with a wide array of training to sharpen professional and communication skills through live and virtual workshops, C-level networking events, innovation projects requiring collaboration with interns or early career professionals from other business units and more. Our hope is for every new employee to feel empowered with resources and a network for support throughout their career.


Big News! 

Zebra was selected as a 2023 Campus Forward Award Winner in the Large Early Career Programs category for an unwavering commitment to seeking out and hiring early career talent, emphasis on diversity & inclusion, and investments in nurturing and retaining the next generation of talent. Read more about why we’ve received this accolade and view other winning strategies from our peers here.

Best Practices, Inside Zebra Nation,
Deanna Molinelli
Deanna Molinelli

Deanna Molinelli is currently an Early Careers Talent Acquisition Partner where she is responsible for intern recruitment and early careers initiatives in the U.S.

Deanna has more than three years of experience within the Early Careers/Talent Acquisition industry and has experience recruiting in the technical field along with developing and streamlining processes. Deanna holds a Bachelor’s in Communications from SUNY New Paltz.

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