Before I get to the advice, my philosophy on internships: I think each of you should use internships to help you figure out what you want from the construction industry. I pretty commonly tell students that, over the time that they're students in the CM program, they should work for different companies in different segments of the construction industry. You may think you want to work for a larger GC, but you won't know heavy-civil until you've tried it. Many of our students get gobbled up by companies that keep them steadily employed, but I tell students to consider working other places just to get some variety on their resume and so they are sure of the direction they are headed. This has always made sense to me because it seems, in theory, to put students in a more knowledgeable position for when they have to choose a permanent job upon graduation, where the stakes are much higher. When making a full-time career choice, you want to have a clearer idea of what type of company you want to work for. But there's a reason I'm a college professor and not a recruiter...
A few weeks ago at the ASC competition in Sparks, Henry Meier introduced me to Gary Rafferty, the Chief Operating Officer for Swinerton. Gary started with Bechtel (one of the largest construction companies in the world and also one of the largest privately-owned companies in the world). He moved to Swinerton as a project manager and later had a massive heart attack. After getting healthy and refining his philosophy on management over time, he steadily worked his way up to the number two management position in one of the largest general contracting companies in the U.S. and a major employer of Sac State CM grads. Let's just assume this dude knows the business and he knows what successful job candidates look like when he meets them. Henry asked Gary what advice he would give students looking for internship opportunities and Gary passed along these nuggets of wisdom:
1) Ride the Brand: Some contractors have a better reputation than others. Find a contractor, in whatever part of the construction industry that you work in, that has the best reputation. This is very subjective and companies have different brands that they're proud of. Turner is know as being the biggest GC and that allows them to tackle very big and complicated projects. Boldt is know as a pioneer in IPD and lean. Tiechert has California Contractors License No. 8, which shows they have been around a long time and are incredibly stable. And of course Gary thinks Swinerton has a great brand in technical commercial structures. There isn't a single company with the best brand, but you should be looking to work for a great company with a great brand. That will make your resume stand out, whether you stay with that company or not.
A little side note on a company's brand: if you are going to ride the brand, it should be something you believe in. Many companies tout that they are or have been on Fortune Magazine's list of best employers (e.g. DPR and PCL). Others win more local awards for being great employers (like DesCor in Sacramento). Other companies, like Swinerton among many others, routinely get deeply involved with charities such as Make A Wish. Whatever sets them apart, it should be something you are interested in being a part of. If you don't believe in a company's brand, it will be tough for you to truly ride it.
2) Have Advocates: Just working for a company with a great brand isn't good enough. The people you work with should have great things to say about you, too, if you want to be successful. If the people at a great company tell a senior officer that you're a good intern, you better believe that company will go out of its way to keep you working there. Gary made the particular point that if he really wants to know how good an intern is, he'll ask all of the superintendents that have worked with that intern for their opinion. Superintendents are notoriously tough on interns, so getting a positive report from one is great. Getting a positive report from more than one is golden. What does this mean to you? Get to know the people you work with, be a solid team player, and make sure your work is of a high enough quality that your coworkers want to tell everyone how awesome you are. This sounds like common sense, but ask yourself: how confident are you that the last superintendent you worked for would sing your praises? If you're unsure, start building relationships with him or her by demonstrating that you are worthy of working at the company with the great brand. While Gary likes superintendents, don't forget you PMs, PEs, fellow interns, folks in the precon department and PAs (don't ever get sideways with a PA!). The more people that like you and think you're an asset to the company is directly proportional to the probability you'll get a great full-time offer.
3) Work Your Ass Off: Speaking of common sense that many people still fail to grasp. How do you impress a superintendent? Work you ass off. Get to work early. Stay late. Put your damn phone down and get out on the project site. Ask questions. Do work that goes above and beyond what you were asked to do. Do stuff that others don't want to do. Get after it. Every. Damn. Day.
Putting it all together, you should strive to work with a company with a great reputation and brand, and once you're there, work your tail off and play well with others. Some of you won't find that dream job in your first attempt. You may have to take some dead end internships before you land the prize. That's OK (and it lends some validity to may advice to try different things until you find what you want). But keep moving in the direction of Gary's advice. If you successfully follow that advice, you will be maximizing your internship effort. Our grads who maximize their internships tend to land the most fulfilling full time jobs upon graduation. Now you know.
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I teach people who will be building our country's infrastructure.