Build a Better Internship Program

Build a Better Internship Program: How an enhanced program gave Coughlin Porter Lundeen’s 2018 interns the best experience yet.

Traditionally, Coughlin Porter Lundeen is known for a strong program that elevates the intern experience far beyond errand and coffee runs. We’re proud to welcome many interns back for repeat sessions and regularly hire interns as full- time staff when they graduate. In fact, some of our current Principals began as interns … just a few years ago.

Despite program success, engineers Ana Perarnau, Albert Alix and Chanel Jackson came together to spearhead a revitalization of the civil and structural internship programs. All served as an exceptional mentor and guide to the current intern class, and Ana had recently been through the Coughlin Porter Lundeen program herself. Who better to shape the intern experience? They collaborated with the leadership team to revisit the curriculum and approach for our growing program, designed to deliver value to our interns and staff. Three primary themes guided the interns’ enhanced program this summer: Cultural Inclusion, Experience and Insight.

Cultural Inclusion: Set interns up for success. Share company culture and build supportive staff teams. 

First and foremost, it was important that the interns feel welcome at Coughlin Porter Lundeen. Their first week opened with introductions to the full team (100+ intros!), and a welcome-lunch to meet one another, their peer mentors, and assigned mentor groups. Each mentor group was led by at least two project managers, ensuring interns received guidance from all levels.

We established camaraderie early on, assuring interns that they should feel at ease when approaching the engineers with any comments or questions. We understand the daunting task of starting a new job or internship, so we broke the ice and let our new arrivals know, we get it. After all, we believe that the more comfortable an intern is in our office, the more they’ll contribute and learn.

Throughout the summer, we sprinkled in social and Seattle-specific activities to help balance the workload, inviting interns to participate in teambuilding outings (Seattle Underground Tour, Mentor Lunches), all- company events (volunteer days, the annual company picnic, Mariners game), and other recreational opportunities (soccer, kickball, hiking excursions).

Experience: Give them real work! Afterall, it's what they came for.

It’s always been our practice to give interns real work during their time with us. Software training begins right away. We introduce them to our 3D modeling and design programs like AutoCAD, Revit, Civil3D and Bluebeam. From there, they begin collaborating with engineers on real projects and are tasked with various assignments, from design and plan mark-ups to permit submittals and attending team meetings.

Charging interns with real work not only helps us evaluate them as potential full-time hires, but sets them up for future success. By exposing interns to projects of varied markets, materials, client types and construction phases, they learn more about the field and can better refine their interests. We tried to honor existing interests too, assigning interns to projects that sincerely excited them (we asked about favorite materials and building types during their interviews). Exposure to real projects showcased what it takes to execute a project from start to finish, from schematic design to construction administration. We aimed to give them a realistic and comprehensive understanding of the AEC industry while allowing them to explore the areas of engineering that most pique their interest.

“I’m impressed with the real design experience that we can get our hands on as interns. I’ve had my name put on calculation packages submitted to the city even as a young intern. Last summer I was able to help design the gravity steel system for an elementary school. Now as a student entering graduate school, I can already say that I’ve designed a building that is slated to open September 2019. None of this would have been possible without intelligent, patient, and supportive mentors who guided me every step of the way!” — Nicole Carter, second year Structural Intern

In addition to project work, some interns delivered research presentations to Coughlin Porter Lundeen mentor groups at the end of their term, showcasing what they’d learned, practicing public speaking skills, and earning a great item for their resume. For example, intern Sam White channeled his interest in mass timber design to generate an in-depth analysis of Dowel Laminated Timber (DLT) vibration calculations in ETABS. Daniel Bi created a wood shear wall footing spreadsheet that checks the overall footing design against input loads and geometric parameters. And Kelly Sindelar worked with the civil team to develop standards for transitioning transportation modeling software from AutoTURN to Vehicle Tracking.

Insight: Inspire interns to think beyond their deskwork, granting industry, project and discipline insights.

We packed the summer with as many site visits as possible, taking the interns with us to numerous projects sites in different stages of development. In addition, we took advantage of in-office learning opportunities such as lunch-and-learns and intern-specific presentations.

One of our favorites was presented by Principal, Garo Pehlivanian, who gave a “Coughlin Porter Lundeen Flagships” presentation highlighting core values and long-term relationships. Garo profiled clients like Starbucks and Kevin Daniels Real Estate (whose history with Coughlin Porter Lundeen spans more than two decades), shared how client relationships have shaped our firm’s identity, and discussed how core values (like commitment to quality, community, and a client-first mindset) guide all that we do.

Another afternoon involved a presentation led by Marketing Manager, Marcie Lohr, Project Manager, Kyle Malaspino and Structural Associate, Matt Snook. Together they shared our breadth of work in South Lake Union and the area’s evolution. Afterward, we guided the interns on a walking tour of South Lake Union so they could experience the neighborhood and see referenced projects for themselves.

As a former Coughlin Porter Lundeen intern, Ana understands what it’s like to be in the interns’ shoes. Her passionate and charismatic nature make her the perfect mentor, especially to some of our younger employees. When asked what she hopes this group will take away from their summer intern experience, she says:

“First and foremost, I hope they are proud of their work. I want them to be challenged and feel like they have contributed to meaningful work. There’s a certain “feel- good” component to our job when you’ve helped create a new school, hospital, or office space, and you know that other members of the community are benefiting from the hard work you’ve put in. Most of all, I want to share that feeling with them, and let it carry them forward as engineers!” — Ana Perarnau, Structural Engineer

While the new curriculum soared, we know that it’s a result of our HR and leadership team’s approach to the revamp. A few tips from them:

1. Charge employees with tasks they’re Passionate about.
Spearheading the effort were team members who were already invested in making the internship program great. Letting employees “create their own destiny” in this way fosters a culture of participation and yields better final results. As a leadership team, consider it your responsibility to encourage creativity, support interests and celebrate achievements.

2. Empower and support young staff.
Charge your team with roles and responsibilities that matter. Eager-to-contribute, young employees will especially rise to the challenge and enjoy taking ownership. Harness their fresh ideas and energy. Failing to do so is not only a missed opportunity for your organization, but may result in early burnout!

3. Treat your internship program (or current undertaking) like a client project.
Often, our internal initiatives get bumped to the back burner. It’s natural, especially in busy organizations supporting lots of client work.We encourage you to prioritize your effort – Assemble a dedicated team, set goals, create a timeline, and schedule regular check-ins. Sometimes, just adding the framework that would accompany a client project helps move it along. Also, once implemented, don’t forget to evaluate your progress regularly. It will undoubtedly need to be adjusted, and missing those early, obvious changes is mistake that undermines all the upfront work done by your team. Check in, make changes!

Our enhanced program found success by giving interns a warm, genuine welcome, granting them valuable “real-world” experience, and arming them with insights and tools to help their future pursuits. We wish our 2018 interns success, and can’t wait to meet the 2019 crew!