HVAC Summer Interns a Win-Win for Both Sides

April 28, 2008
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Kalen Cartwright (left) goes over project design plans with Ted Current (right), vice president and chief financial officer with Current Mechanical, Fort Wayne, Ind. Cartwright interned two summers with Current Mechanical and is now operations manager.


In the eyes of Kalen Cartwright, contractors should not hesitate in offering summer employment for HVACR students. “I would encourage any contractor to talk to another contractor who has already had an intern to get their input,” said the operations manager at Current Mechanical in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“I have had friends who have had terrific internships with very small plumbing contractors and many who have terrific experiences with some of the largest in the nation. I wouldn’t discourage anyone from pursuing interns.

“You will be surprised at how much you, the contractor, will learn from them. Interns have a unique ability to think outside of the box, and view something they know nothing about in a completely different perspective than what we’re used to.”

Cartwright is one case in point. He interned for two summers for Ted Current. When all was said and done, the vice president and chief financial officer of Current Mechanical was pleased with what he saw and made an offer the then 22-year-old could not refuse. “We tried it out and it worked real well,” said Current. “I’d say it is definitely something contractors should take a look at. Anyone who is looking to grow, if you are looking for good employees, this is a good avenue.”

The Mechanical Contractors Association of America (MCAA) could not agree more. It is putting its money where its mouth is, too. To push the cause, the Mechanical Contracting Education and Research Foundation (MCERF) is offering $2,000 grants to contractors who desire to hire a summer intern. According to Ann Mattheis, director of marketing and career development for MCAA, hiring a college intern to help with projects and other professional tasks will give a student much needed experience and give a company an opportunity to evaluate a potential full-time employee.

“MCAA believes that students who work for a mechanical or plumbing or service contractor under an internship arrangement will enhance their education, their professional experience, and their interest in the mechanical contracting industry,” said Mattheis.

“Therefore, grants are offered to promote internships for undergraduate students majoring in academic disciplines applicable to the mechanical construction industry. These grants are available to mechanical construction, service, or plumbing contractors or manufacturers and suppliers to the mechanical construction industry offering internships at their company to qualified applicants.”

Getting financial help to pay for a summer employee? What more could a contractor ask for?

GUINEA PIG TURNED GOLDEN BOY

Cartwright was Current Mechanical’s guinea pig. The 30-year-old company did not have an internship program in place until the summer of 2002. Daryl Orth, Cartwright’s mechanical professor at Purdue University, initiated the process. He met Current at the 2002 MCAA Convention in Boca Raton, Fla. The two started to talk. When Orth found out that Current was going to need to hire project managers in the near future due to retirement of existing project managers, Orth told him about hiring a Purdue student.

“Purdue’s Construction Management programs require a minimum of 800 hours of work experience or internships to graduate, so that requirement is what prompted me to pursue this opportunity,” said Cartwright.

“I had an interest in the mechanical field, but at the time had no experience, so I figured I had nothing to lose. That in itself is what makes internships great. The company hiring doesn’t typically have anything longer than a three-month commitment to the student, assuming it is done over a summer break. And, the student wins as well, because in that three-month commitment, you learn a lot. You learn whether or not the mechanical industry is what you were expecting, and if it isn’t, you have another chance the following summer to gain more experience with someone else.”

What helped Cartwright is the fact he lived in Current Mechanical’s hometown, Fort Wayne.

“I knew I ultimately wanted to stay here when I graduated,” he said. “In my case, Current was very upfront with me. I was their first intern. Their sole intention was to have me intern for two summers and provided there was a good bond, there would be an offer going into my senior year. This proved to be the case. I was given an offer of full-time employment upon graduation from Purdue’s program.”

Current cannot say he was hesitant in starting the summer program. He was just at a loss of how to do it. “We worked with the local [MCAA] chapter,” explained Current. “We contacted them and they worked with us.”

Admittedly, Current was not sure if he would have been open to the idea had Cartwright not been from the area.

“You are investing a lot of time and energy,” he said. “And the idea here is to find someone who will stick with your company.”

Not that Current has a closed mind. He knows the value of gaining on-the-job experience. He has had two interns since pass through, working with the MCAA program. “At the same time, you don’t want to take these kids and put them in the corner,” said Current. “You want to see what they can do. It’s best for them, too.”

Cartwright really did not know what he was stepping into when he came knocking in late May 2002. “I had no idea what to expect, and Current didn’t know what they were getting since I was their first intern,” he said.

“I think it worked out very well, though. I did a lot of shadowing of other project managers my first summer. They had me involved with a lot of administrative work to learn the ins and outs of project management. Since I was not coming up through the trade, I was on a lot of job sites to learn that side of the business, too.”

Cartwright was treated differently the summer of 2002.

“If you come back for a second summer, then your duties get to be fine-tuned to whatever the future full-time position would entail,” he explained. “You get more field experience if you are going to be running large projects that have multiple project managers on them. You are in the office more if you are going to be involved with estimating and project managing your own work. The second summer is harder to put an outline to.”

No regrets, that’s for certain.

“I think the program has been a huge success,” he said. “I must give Purdue credit, too. They have had this requirement for a number of years, so they have a huge pool of contractors from every industry and trade that seek out students. I am sure it would be much more difficult if you were at a school that did not have the internship requirements Purdue has.

“Also, MCAA now offers contractors monetary incentives to help offset some of the expenses. This wasn’t offered when I did my internship, but was when I was hired on full-time.”

DRAWBACKS? WHAT DRAWBACKS?

J. Mark McKnight, president of D.A. Dodd Inc., Lafayette, Ind., is another firm believer in offering summer help, as is Stan Johnson, president of Stan’s Heating and Air of Austin, Texas. Johnson isn’t always looking for technicians, either. Through the School of Business/Marketing at nearby Texas State, Johnson has employed business students for summer help. Because it needed help in the accounting area, it took on student Tom Barnett last summer with open arms.

“We were able to get a lot accomplished,” said Johnson. “We had one young lady that came in and completely brought our new construction division up to speed and set up job costing for us. She worked for two summers. She went to Baylor.”

McKnight has had an internship program for six years now. All his part-time help have gone on to the mechanical field, including one who was hired on as a project manager.

“Most contractors may not see the value because of old school mentality,” said McKnight. “Old school doesn’t lend itself to delegating authority.”

Neither contractor sees any drawbacks to the arrangement.

“It is not difficult,” said Mc- Knight. “If you take the time up front to teach the needs of the project, it goes smooth. The positives are that tasks are never dropped, even when other jobs need attention. Someone always has the ball.”

“You have to have an open mind,” added Johnson, who has agreements with three local trade schools. “This is a great opportunity. You get to look at these kids and see what they can do. If we did not do this, we would not be able to grow our staff. Right now, we have eight or nine techs from this company that came out of tech schools over the last five years. And they are doing all kinds of things.”

Johnson continues to offer more training once hired. He is pushing each to move to North American Technician Excellence (NATE) certification, too.

“We pick up these kids before they graduate,” said Johnson. “It’s worth contacting these schools. I would recommend it. I don’t think a company could hurt itself.”

Johnson is currently talking to a for-profit technical school, looking to iron out an arrangement whereby student service techs work at his company for seven-nine months in the field “and there might be a job offer at the end.”

“I really can’t tell you that there are drawbacks,” said Johnson. “At the end of the day, there has never been an issue. At times, they [interns] might get slack, but we don’t give them a structured job that requires a response every day.”

Cartwright can’t think of any drawbacks.

“…Unless it is your first time as a company having an intern and you don’t have a plan going into it,” he said.

“One thing that many people forget is that an intern doesn’t get all of the interruptions a typical project manager gets, so if it would normally take an experienced project manager two to four hours to accomplish something, whether it’s submittals, purchasing, or just running a job cost review on a project, expect the intern to have it done in half that time. It is a very simple concept. The interns are typically more versed with computer software in this day and age. Therefore, they type more quickly and can manipulate spreadsheets better, and since they are new, they don’t get the interruptions from subs, vendors, or field personnel.”

Looking down the road, Cartwright believes change is the biggest hesitation.

“Having an intern is a completely different world,” he said. “Not only do they not have the experience, they still have training wheels on, so they have to have someone giving them that stability when they are working on projects and that is a large time commitment that smaller contractors may not be able to withstand. I would still encourage any size company to take the leap and use interns.”

Visit www.mcaa.org/careers for more information regarding the summer intern grant program offered by MCAA. Applications are to be sent by May 15.

Sidebar: Summer Intern's Schedule

Below is an outline of Kalen Cartwright’s schedule and duties for his summer 2002 internship at Current Mechanical, Fort Wayne, Ind.

Weeks 1 and 2 (May 20-May 31)
Internship will be served at 1426 Directors Row.
Job tasks/duties:

• Orientation and tour of Current’s offices and Falstaff

• Prepare job books for multiple jobs; assist contract administrator.

• Read and review Peabody’s plans and specs.

• Visit jobsites and/or job meetings with project manager, superintendent, and safety manager.

• Sit in on estimating of a job as well as turnover meeting.

• Attend a bid opening.

• Assist contract administrator as needed.

Weeks 3 through 13 (June 3-August 16)
Intern will spend Monday through Wednesday at the jobsite and Thursday and Friday at 1426 Directors Row.
Job tasks/duties:

• Assist project foreman as needed (Tom Fortman).

• Assist project manager as needed (Denny Thompson).

• Attend job meeting for Peabody.

• Assist contract administrator as needed (Tanya Lauer).

• Organize paperwork for Peabody project.

• Create and set up file cabinets for Peabody project.

• E-mail correspondence and time sheets between project and office.

• Perform safety inspections for Peabody project.

• Organize prints for Peabody project.

Publication date: 04/28/2008

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