Interns aren’t a new concept for Designs by Sundown in Littleton, Colorado. The company – which ranked no. 84 on our 2019 Top 100 List – has offered internships to college students for about six years, but the last four years, going into their fifth, they’ve revamped their program for a more strategic approach.
“As a company, we just kind of sat down and really looked at what it is we stand for and what makes our company better,” says Jessica Hommel, director of marketing at Designs by Sundown. “It was our employees and the fact that work we are able to retain our employees for so long.”
Instead of looking for a recruiter or headhunter, Hommel says the team realized they could recruit the top talent coming from local colleges in order to create a career path for them. “We want people to be able to grow. We’re not looking at people making lateral transitions,” she says. “The idea is that we would offer these interns a position at the company at the end of the internship. We want them to be ready to roll when the time comes.”
The company has a committee of five people, most who are in a managerial role, which focuses on networking and making connections to find interns. “We all target different professors and whether that’s alumni or just reaching out with a professor and (asking who their top talent is). The group works with the National Association of Landscape Professionals and uses the National Collegiate Landscape Competition as a resource as well.
Having a presence at careers fairs is also important for the group. “We always do one or two long distance career fairs and we try to rotate that,” she says. “So we have our few schools that we have recruited from and we do that on a rotating basis. It’s usually a three-year basis that we’re at least making some kind of (outreach) with that school.”
Making the connection.
In order to be selected for the program, Designs by Sundown receives recommendations from the connections they’ve made with professors and associations, but students are put through an interview process. Applicants are vetted by a member of the committee and interviewed by a sales manager to decide if they should take the next step to come out to the facility. “We don’t pay for our kid’s flights out here, but we will put them up (in a hotel) for the evening and give them a whole tour of the entire day,” she says.
It’s a paid internship program with some flexibility depending on the students individual situation, she says.
“Housing is such a struggle to find here,” Hommel says. “So we do offer a housing stipend with less take-home pay as an option.” She says some students have been able to sublease apartments for the duration of the program or even stay with friends or family to make it work.
The team came up with four different tracks for the interns to follow during the 12-week internship. Students can apply for the construction, maintenance, design/build or irrigation track depending on their career aspirations and current areas of study.
“We also have them spend at least two weeks in other departments as well,” Hommel says. “Every single internship does touch on every single department just because we also believe as a company we want our construction and our maintenance to speak fluidly because that’s how our company is going to operate…everyone working together.”
The students work the same hours on the same shifts as others in their department, too. “We keep them as close as we can to a ‘normal’ employee,” she says. “If they’re on a maintenance crew they are there in the morning for rollout.”
Every other Monday, the interns meet with Hommel and Ben Harcey, construction and irrigation manager, to ensure the program is running smoothly. The interns fill out a biweekly questionnaire on Friday’s for the team to review ahead of the Monday meeting.
“We want to make sure that we’re keeping our word, we're not just using them as labor and that we're actually teaching you,” she says. Managers follow up with department heads on Wednesdays to address anything that could be improved.
Additionally, interns are assigned a mentor in a different department which Hommel says allows the interns to speak more freely about any pain points in the program. “This isn’t getting directly back to the boss or who they are working with so we realized that it gives the interns a little bit more freedom to be a little bit more open and honest,” she says. And, a monthly happy hour is thrown in with owner Michael Hommel, too. Overall, she says they end up offering a job to two of the six interns they bring on.