Management & Operations

The Merits of a Transit Internship Program

Posted on January 1, 2005 by John Vasquez

They are in your office. You’ve seen them lurking around your cubicle. They may answer your phones. They may help you with your projects. They are interns, and many transit agencies understand just how valuable they can be to an organization. Paid or unpaid, most interns are looking to get real-world experience that they can apply when they graduate from college. While transit properties offer up work experience and training, interns often add another dimension of productivity to agencies by bringing in up-to-date knowledge and fresh ideas from their college fields of study. More importantly, transit agencies can pick from a pool of interns to hire full time without having to spend much time or money on new-hire training. Additionally, interns can develop a vested interest in transit by the time they apply for or are offered a full-time position. As a result of internship programs, the industry as a whole becomes better prepared for the future by having cultivated more transit expertise among young people. If you market, they will come
In order to have an internship program, you have to have interns. Depending on the type of intern — college or high school — there are many choices at the disposal of a transit agency. Says Kevin Hyland, vice president of human resources for New York City Transit (NYCT), “Students are recruited in many of the same ways in which we market the programs: phone contact and direct mail to schools, advertising on the NYCT Website, distribution of the NYCT recruitment brochure, open houses, college career fairs, community outreach events and ads in the National Association of Colleges and Employers publication or Website.” According to Leigh Ann Arzaga, employment representative for the Orange County (Calif.) Transportation Authority (OCTA) and head of the agency’s intern program, where to place a posting for an internship depends on what department needs an intern. “The way we promote includes talking to the career counselors at the schools, promoting our Websites at the schools and posting positions with related associations like a public relations association,” Arzaga says. An agency can also use a Website like MonsterTrak and pick different schools to post internships, she explains. Internally, agencies can ask employees if they know of any students interested in an internship. Another alternative is to start a referral program that offers rewards to those employees who refer candidates that get placed. Fresh faces and new blood
Though interns may come into a transit internship without work experience, what they lack in training they more than make up for in the cutting-edge knowledge they have gained in their chosen disciplines in college. “The intent of the program is to recruit and retain valuable employees, which definitely would include appreciating the person and his/her ideas,” Hyland explains. At OCTA, interns are given mentors, or current employees who monitor and review the progress of the students. Arzaga recounts a particular incident when she was stopped by a mentor in the parking lot who raved about an intern he was overseeing. The intern, having only been with the company for two and a half months, managed to complete a project ahead of schedule and was able to enhance the project beyond the mentor’s expectations. The reason for this particular intern’s success was due in part to knowledge acquired from college classes. Stronger in certain technical areas than other staff members, he was able to manipulate programs and data more efficiently during the course of the project. According to Marcelo Sandoval, public relations specialist in the marketing department for OCTA and one of the first interns ever hired by the agency, it is valuable for the agency to get an extra body to do work and to get new perspectives, fresh faces and fresh ideas. “I know for a fact, from both the intern and mentor perspective, that [interns] do take it very seriously,” Sandoval says. “They’re not just here to file and copy. They’re here to work, and they’re part of a team. The intern has something to say
Besides providing experience and training, an agency should also listen to what the intern has to say. Having an intern provide feedback on projects gives a transit agency a chance to hear some new ideas from new people. Francesco Rodriguez, organization and performance development associate for the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, Texas, (Houston Metro) believes it is beneficial to the agency to have interns provide constructive feedback on projects. “A task or project is determined before the intern begins, and interns are given the opportunity to provide feedback on these projects for improvement,” Rodriguez says. “Interns provide additional temporary resources to assist and participate in projects.” By giving interns a chance to speak their mind about certain projects or programs, a transit agency can breed confidence in someone who may not be that familiar with the transit industry, but who has good ideas. Communication also allows the intern to submit solutions that could greatly affect the agency in positive ways, but may otherwise be stifled if not given the opportunity to offer input. School time vs. work time
Like any program, internships, with their many advantages, have occasional hang-ups. After all, an intern is a student whose main priority is school. Anything from schedules and availability to graduation can conflict with a transit agency’s need to have a full staff of interns. “Sometimes the problem is if the applicant is going to school very heavily between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m., that’s predominantly when we need to work the interns,” says OCTA’s Arzaga. “And if they’re involved in a lot of school activities, it could be that there’s really not that much left over. Sometimes that knocks out an applicant.” On the other hand, an internship program’s requirements can also prove to cause a conflict with what the intern can and cannot do, says Houston Metro’s Rodriguez. “One of the disadvantages of internships is that they last a finite amount of time — 10 weeks or 400 hours, for example,” he says. “So, the projects assigned are limited in scope. Assignments must be carefully reviewed, so that completion of their tasks can be completed within the allotted time.” Graduation also poses a problem if the interns are not offered positions or decide to work somewhere else. The program can be left with spots to fill. “When we get to the spring we do lose a lot more interns, so we get a little turnover right there,” explains Arzaga. “They’re graduating and they want to go on to bigger and better opportunities, whether it’s here or outside.” Some transit agencies don’t see any problems with their interns. NYCT’s Hyland says there are no disadvantages to having an internship program. Got internships?
Many transit agencies may ask why they would need an internship program. And in truth, internship programs are more plausible for some agencies than for others. But regardless of plausibility or need, there seems to be a consensus that internship programs are well worth having. OCTA’s Sandoval was an intern 11 years ago and was a mentor as well. He knows both sides of the coin and attests to why transit agencies should have an internship program. “It’s a good opportunity for both sides. Having been there for so long it’s like I’ve gone full circle from an intern to getting a full-time job, and I was a mentor for a while with my own intern, so I’ve seen it full circle,” he says. Sandoval relates internship programs to a circle of ideas and experience, where what one intern learns, he passes on to someone else. “If I ever leave the agency, all my years of experience and knowledge have been passed to an intern who can eventually be hired full time. The knowledge and experience stay within the organization,” he says. Rodriguez explains that Houston Metro decided to go with an internship program in order to provide the agency with “an opportunity to learn from students about the latest innovations in their fields of endeavor.” Hyland shares a similar thought. “NYCT has benefited from the students’ knowledge and technical skills, especially with computers, engineering, technical writing and the skill trades area.” With an internship program, the transition process for interns becoming full-time employees is that much smoother. The intern is already familiar with the company culture, the policies and the inner-workings of the agency. It becomes a win-win situation for both the intern and the transit agency.

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