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Interns: The Leaders of Tomorrow

With concerns about talent shortages plaguing the industry, integrators must lay the groundwork now to expand the AV talent pool to meet growing needs.

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Interns: The Leaders of Tomorrow

Crestron interns assembled care packages for deployed troops and first responders, wrote thank-you cards, made paracord bracelets and stuffed bears in conjunction with the nationwide nonprofit Operation Gratitude

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National Intern Day, which is celebrated on the last Thursday of July, is a day to recognize and celebrate the future leaders of our industry and of the world. Launched by the recruiting software platform WayUp in 2017, National Intern Day is an opportunity for thousands of employers to celebrate, honor and thank their hardworking interns.

Crestron Electronics, a leader in audiovisual automation and integration technologies, held Intern Appreciation Day at its Rockleigh, N.J.-based headquarters on July 20. Working in conjunction with national nonprofit Operation Gratitude, Crestron interns came together to assemble care packages for deployed troops and first responders, write thank-you cards, make paracord bracelets and stuff bears, called “Battalion Buddies,” for children of deployed parents.

Chris Fitzpatrick, manager of university relations and DEI at Crestron, addressed a crowded room of interns, saying, “Today’s different…today’s special. Today, we come together, as a team, and will do something that has nothing to do with the audiovisual industry but has everything to do with our communities that allow us to be in business.” The spirit of selfless service suffused the entire experience.

An Industry Poised for Growth

Everyone seems to agree that our industry is poised for growth — indeed, according to AVIXA, commercial AV represents a $258 billion industry in 2022, and it’s expected to grow at a 7.2% CAGR from 2021 to 2026 — but we must scale-up our ranks to maximize that growth. Many industry observers say we’re growing faster than we can attract, train and retain talent.

Related: Internship Best Practices

In this article, we’ll dive deep into not only Crestron’s Intern Appreciation Day but also its internship program broadly. We’ll also explore the internship-related efforts of nationwide integration firm Conference Technologies, Inc. (CTI), and global technology service provider Mechdyne Corp.

To start, let’s continue with Crestron. The company welcomed a record 111 interns this year. The program, in recent years, has attracted between 70 and 80 students, meaning this year is an exciting new milestone. “We brought in more interns than we ever have before by over a 30% margin year-over-year,” Fitzpatrick says with pride. “And we’re going to keep growing it.”

The engineering category stands at about half of the internship program at Crestron. Fitzpatrick notes an increase in the last several years in areas focusing on cybersecurity and data analytics. “There are data-analytics interns in five of our seven different functional divisions this year,” he explains. “It shows how data-driven the program has become and how it’s empowering our company to create, to understand and to make decisions based off data in a more efficient manner.”

Many departmental managers at Crestron are jumping into the internship program because, as Fitzpatrick explains, “…they see the short-term value of being able to have some bright young people come in and work on these projects, but then [they also look] at a full-time, long-term talent pool.”

When Andrew Shamis, a computer engineering major at Stevens Institute of Technology showed up for his first day of working in the school’s IT department, he noticed Crestron branded boxes piled up the school’s tiny IT closet. “I’ve never heard of Crestron until then,” he recalls. “I became very familiar with some of the product lines. When Chris Fitzpatrick showed up at one of the career fairs, I talked to him. It was my freshman year of college. I didn’t end up interning at Crestron that year, but the following year I did. The vibe is extremely approachable [at Crestron]. Everyone that I’ve interacted with is very friendly; very willing to offer their advice, it’s not just in one department that you get this sort of feeling. I don’t think that’s something you’ll get in other corporate environments.”

He continues, “I returned to Crestron for a second-year internship because I’ve gotten to explore a technical field that I had an interest in school but never got to be really hands on with it. It’s been a great experience for me in terms of learning what I would be doing on the job, what it takes from an academic standpoint, how it differs from what I do in the classroom. I think what really speaks to Crestron is the fact that I’ve learned more in the last two months than I probably would have learned in an entire year of school. All the homework and exams for my courses, doesn’t amount to what I’ve actually been able to learn at Crestron, both in technical and soft skills.”

Shamis concludes, “I’m very grateful to Crestron for the last two years in figuring out what I want to do professionally; the connections I’ve made and the people I’ve interacted with. It’s made for two unforgettable experiences that I’m going to carry with me for the rest of my life.”

From Intern to Full-Timer

To that very point, last year, Crestron converted 40 interns from prior internship programs (2019 to 2021) to full-time employees. The conversion rate for interns who qualify for conversion to full-time employees is well over 50%, according to Fitzpatrick.

Speaking of the Crestron internship program, he notes, “By having an industry-leading internship program of this size, of this scope and of this success, it’s going to benefit the industry. What that’ll do is enable the industry to become more nimble, more agile and more innovative.” Fitzpatrick continues, “We will be able to be seen as an industry of choice among young people, college students, and people of any age or any background.”

Crestron has carefully built relationships with more than three dozen education institutions, colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada — some because of proximity and some because the curriculum or the alumni base. The growth of Crestron’s office in Plano, Texas, has attracted students from the University of Texas at Dallas. “As we hire more co-op students, who are here for eight months, instead of three, we see students from Rochester Institute of Technology and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute,” Fitzpatrick explains.

He continues, “There will always be those partnerships where we see such a great translation of their skill set and their curriculum to what we do here [at Crestron]. A lot of those colleges and universities are also customers; they have Crestron technology on their campus. Students see it year-round in their classrooms, and then they get to come and really see how the magic happens [at Crestron] behind the scenes and end up with a great career path.”

Ava Petrillo, a recently onboarded talent acquisition specialist at Crestron, wasn’t even aware of the AV industry until her advisor mentioned the company while looking for an internship her freshman year at Pace University. “I applied for a production management internship my freshman year of college, and, honestly, at that point, I had no idea what that even meant. I didn’t get the internship, but I reapplied for an internship in human resources and ended up in the campus relations department and ended up loving it. I converted from an intern to a full-time talent acquisition specialist for campus relations in June.”

She continues, “I really love what we do. It’s not that we’re just recruiting anybody — it’s recruiting those who want to become a part of this industry and this company. We’re working with students who are going to eventually convert to professionals. It’s really rewarding to see them grow.”

Embracing DEI

As Fitzpatrick’s team continues to grow and as the internship program expands, Crestron is mindfully partnering with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as well as Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs). These efforts help fulfill the company’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) mission, but they also simply serve Crestron well.

“By pulling from [these] colleges and universities, we’re getting students from all different cultural backgrounds — of different races, genders [and] ethnicities,” Fitzpatrick says. “And we’re able to evangelize them into the AV industry as a whole.” He continues, “For the first time in their life, they may see it as a viable career path, and that benefits everybody.”

Indeed, studies have shown that the more diverse a company’s employee base is, the more innovative the company is. “Diverse organizations are more empathetic,” Fitzpatrick declares. “They are also better positioned to respond to their customers, partners and other organizations they work with. There’s real business value.”

Related: Editor’s Blog: DEI is the Calling of our Time

To achieve that business value, however, companies must not only achieve diversity but also facilitate a space in which diverse employees feel welcomed, nurtured and supported. “When employees come to the workplace, with authenticity, knowing they’re safe, they’re going to be more productive, they’re going to be happier [and] they’re going to be more engaged in their job,” Fitzpatrick explains. That’s key to driving retention and referrals. Simply put, people from diverse backgrounds who feel that they’re working somewhere safe are more willing to refer other talented people whom they think would be a good fit for the organization. But they’ll only do that, Fitzpatrick warns, “…if they know that that person will also be valued.”

He continues, “That is the type of atmosphere that we want to continue to build [at Crestron]. We have the leadership in place to be able to do that. We have people here who want to make that happen.” Fitzpatrick adds that Crestron’s managers want to ensure that they’re bringing in the best talent, regardless of their background, origin or other variables.

He expresses gratitude for the tremendous organizational support that the internship program receives from Crestron’s executive leadership team every year. “They want to see Crestron lead the way in this,” Fitzpatrick explains, “and we’re excited that there are other organizations that will also do this.” There’s much still to do, he acknowledges, but he takes pride in Crestron making strides to seed the next generation of talent.

Judson Sonnet, a second-year production engineering intern at Crestron, followed his brother’s footsteps to Crestron. “My brother interned at Crestron and really enjoyed the program, so I gave it a shot,” he explains. “I was pleasantly surprised by how awesome it is and how much I’ve learned. I really didn’t know what to expect initially; I didn’t have the slightest idea what Crestron did, I knew it was a very niche market. I don’t feel like I’m working just for any company, I’m working with the company. It’s a very cohesive environment. I really enjoy coming into work. I love that I can go up to anybody [at Crestron] and ask them a question, and they’ll give me a true straight answer.”

CTI’s Growing Internship Program

The internship program at nationwide integration firm CTI has grown about 15% to 20% each year since CTI started it around 10 years ago, Brandon Conick, COO at CTI, reports. Putting things simply, Conick explains, “When you can’t find the talent you want, you have to develop your own.”

CTI looks for students near the end of their two- or four-year program and brings them in for 10 weeks over the summer to give them hands-on experience; to introduce them to the different roles that exist in the industry; and to have them practice and, eventually, take the CTS exam.

“The curriculum changes from year to year where, sometimes, they’ll have a special project to work on,” Conick remarks, using the examples of redoing an internal room or programming. The interns also get to travel to client locations and see other CTI branch offices. According to Conick, “The ultimate goal is for the intern to become a full-fledged employee, as long as they are interested [in this career], and they’re culturally the right fit.”

Are We Doing Enough?

When CI asked Conick whether we, as an industry, are doing enough to help seed the next generation, he had a ready answer. “I think we’re getting better at [recognizing the need],” he says. “We’re way better now than we were seven or eight years ago, but we still have a way to go. We embrace the challenge to recruit, attract, train and retain talent this is the same challenge and opportunity [for many integration firms].”

He notes that, as the industry is shifting toward more software and network-based solutions, it’s attracting a different, much younger generation. That generation, of course, grew up with the internet, computers and software-based solutions. “The way the industry is going is creating an influx of new talent,” Conick states, adding, “The new talent coming in is young [and] they’re excited.” Those generational differences, he argues, also represent, in microcosm, the importance of divergent perspectives in circles of power. “[Integrators] are good at doing the same things,” he opines, “but I don’t think that’s going to be what carries [the industry] forward into the next 10 years. Diversity of thought is going to be super important.”

Ultimately, Conick says, every integration firm should get on board with developing an internship program. He believes it’s imperative for us, collectively, as an industry to come together and get better at developing young talent. “There’s a lot to like about the AV industry,” he declares. “The more we can expose talented people to our industry, the stronger it’s going to be five, 10 or 20 years from now. And that’s good for everybody.”

According to the National Systems Contractors Association (NSCA), the average NSCA member has at least seven open positions at any given time (that’s 17,000 open positions nationally). NSCA’s Ignite program reaches educators, students and job seekers alike to inform, educate and foster recruitment possibilities for careers in the commercial electronics systems industry. Ignite is intended to “spark” interest in powerful career opportunities for today’s students and job seekers. The program provides internship grants for qualifying integrator and manufacturer companies with a goal of transitioning paid interns to full-time employment. The program also provides helpful guidance on how to structure an internship. It’s part of NSCA’s mission to assist businesses in recruiting and cultivating talent, while helping link students to promising careers in an industry where the only barrier to growth is a shortage of skilled workers. NSCA members (integrators, dealers, and manufacturers) are the feet on the ground — they are often found recruiting and educating at industry job fairs, local high schools, technical schools, community colleges and other adult-education organizations. Ignite Ambassador companies can apply for a reimbursement of $1,000 to offset the wages associated with hiring an intern. Contact Teresa Solorio at tsolorio@nsca.org or by phone at 800.446.6722 to learn more.

Hire for Attitude

At Mechdyne Corp, the Marshalltown, Iowa-based global technology service provider, the mantra is simple: “Hire for attitude; train for skill.” Certifications are not a requirement.

Mary Clover, coordinator for organizational development and training at Mechdyne, says that, when she goes to career fairs across the state, many event organizers ask what majors Mechdyne would like to see. “We always tell them we’re looking at all majors,” she says. “It doesn’t matter to us what their degree is in. We’re looking for someone who fits our culture and our core values.” She continues, “Sometimes, universities and students who have a specific major don’t necessarily think of our industry, when, in reality, it is very multidisciplinary.” And that’s absolutely correct: Everyone from engineers, to human-resources specialists, to marketers, to salespeople, to communications professionals can thrive in commercial AV.

Clover does believe it’s critical for interns to identify what they like and what they don’t like. Thus, she advises them to — indeed, she recommends anyone to — “Learn to learn yourself.” CliftonStrength Assessment is a tool that helps to identify what a person’s greatest strengths are; that way, they can develop their strengths and apply them to their work.

For example, some interns love to provide support as a helpdesk agent, whereas others might find it hard to come up with a helpful answer on the spot. Some might instead prefer to sit back and think about a solution to a problem. “Everybody has different strengths, and you just have to figure out how to apply them,” Clover advises. “The earlier we can [attract student interns], the better, because [we] want them to identify areas that they want to focus on while they still have time to modify their own learning priorities at school.”

Find Your Passion

Jim Gruening, co-founder and senior vice president of Mechdyne, says, “I would much rather hire somebody full time, or have them join our team, if they already know what they are passionate about and what they want to do.” Those employees, he believes, will be happier and more productive.

Speaking of productivity, interns can really help to drive it. “Interns help push us in ways that we haven’t thought of previously,” Gruening acknowledges. “Our culture really values everyone’s ideas and suggestions. Some of the best ideas come from our interns.”

Listen/Watch: AV+ Podcast: Nureva’s Nancy Knowlton on Building Company Culture

And the benefits that a strong group of interns can provide don’t end there. Clover adds that only once interns are on the team can you really begin to see all the opportunities. For example, when Mechdyne works at Iowa State University and needs extra hands on a project, the trained interns from the summer can dive in and help out.

Ultimately, one conclusion is inescapable: Internship programs are an efficient model to provide long-term company growth and to develop talent within our industry. Having an internship program is something that many integration firms can’t afford not to do. After all, the interns of today might well be the leaders of tomorrow — and the decisions that companies make today will directly shape their own future, as well as that of the AV industry broadly.

Click “View Slideshow” in the upper right hand corner to view additional photos of Crestron’s Intern Appreciation Day and CTI’s 2022 interns in the field this summer.