Internship programs are an untapped resource for finding the next generation of leaders for specialty fabrics businesses.
After decades of building businesses within the textile industry, entrepreneurial baby boomers are entering a new phase of life. As CEOs, business owners and managers consider transitioning out of their leadership positions, they’re dealing with a lot of critical questions: How can we attract the upcoming generation to the textile industry? How can young employees gain the necessary skills to run successful businesses in an ever-evolving economic climate?
Addressing those concerns for all types of industries is a prime goal of the Raymond J. Harbert College of Business Supply Chain Management (SCM) program at Auburn University in Alabama. SCM equips students to manage the flow of goods across an increasingly complex global marketplace. A vital component of the program involves required internships that range from ten weeks to six months. “We’ve offered internships for more than ten years. Three years ago we updated the curriculum, and students now must complete an internship as a part of their graduation requirements,” says Dr. Brian Gibson, SCM Center director. “Requiring internships has really ramped up the value proposition for the students. It helps them compete for great jobs after graduation.”
The program at SCM typically has approximately 140 interns and 100 participating companies each year. Businesses—from start-ups to multi-billion dollar enterprises—clamor to get interns from Auburn’s SCM program, but so far it’s a largely untapped opportunity for textile enterprises. Currently only one of the participating companies is a part of the specialty fabrics industry.
Dee Duncan, CEO of wholesale textile supplier Keyston Bros. Inc., Roswell, Ga., is on the advisory council board for the business school and is an enthusiastic participant in the SCM internship program. “Keyston has been heavily involved in the internship program for the last few years, and we’ve been hiring new staff from the supply chain program,” Duncan says. “We need youth in the textile industry. Who’s going to be the next generation of business people? Who knows how to look at where our customer base is? What are they buying? Do we have the right goods on the shelf? The internship program is full of kids looking for their next careers. Why not figure out a way to expose them to the industry?”
Duncan makes sure the interns who come to Keyston Bros. have the kinds of responsibilities that they will eventually have when they join the workforce full time. “One of the biggest and strongest components of what supply chain does is manage data,” Duncan says. “So we have interns ordering goods and processing shipments.”
Last year, Duncan says, the company had a block in how it processed outgoing shipments. The interns worked on streamlining the problem and succeeded in shaving off approximately two minutes an order by batching them. “When you’re doing 200 to 300 orders a day, that’s a lot of time,” Duncan says. “That was a good example of how it can really be helpful to bring fresh eyes to a problem.”
Gibson adds that one of the main benefits to participating companies is the extra capacity the interns provide. “The students provide an opportunity for companies to work on projects that they’d like to do but perhaps haven’t had the time to address,” he says. “That extra set of hands, after a little bit of training, can be productive and contribute to the success of the organization. There really is a value proposition from the projects they do. You’re not just pumping a lot of learning into the students without a payback.”
Gibson points out that the internships are especially beneficial to smaller businesses, because having an intern gives the business an opportunity to look at operations in a different way and potentially get some extra support to do what they need to do.
The three-month interview
If a company is looking to hire new employees, participating in an internship program is a way to determine if that intern is a good fit for the company, and vice-versa. “It’s what we call the three-month interview,” Gibson says. “It’s an opportunity for the company to observe the candidate over an extended period of time. What are their capabilities? Their capacity to learn? And their fit with the organization? These are things you just can’t figure out during a two-hour interview.”
“If I’m looking for somebody who’s going to be the next generation of Keyston Bros., I want to know they’ve got what it takes before I hire them,” Duncan says. “I want to know their character, work ethic and how they work with others. The trial period is also an opportunity to show them right off how to conduct themselves in a business environment—how to build a relationship with a vendor and a customer.”
In addition to the immediate benefits to the interns and the companies providing the internships, all the participants have an opportunity to provide feedback to the university—feedback that can shape the future of the program and, in turn, the industry. “One of the things the program has changed based on feedback from Keyston and other companies is to move the [Microsoft] Excel training and data manipulation up before their junior year,” Duncan says. “That way, by the time they’re doing their internship, they’re already learning how to pivot tables and how to manage data.”
Based on its in-depth curriculum and required internships, Harbert College’s undergraduate Supply Chain Management program was ranked eighth nationally in a study conducted by Gartner, an information technology research and advisory firm. “Our graduates are capable of becoming general managers who can work across multiple supply chain processes,” Gibson says. “We’re continually refining our curriculum to make sure that our students are well prepared for the work world.”
As textile companies seek to infuse their organizations with the young professionals who can take the industry forward, internships are an important means to find people trained to take on the challenge.
Sigrid Tornquist, a writer and editor based in St. Paul, Minn., is a frequent contributor to IFAI publications.