Getting in on the Ground Level

Internship programs can be a great idea not just for the interns, but also for community banks with one eye on recruiting the next generation of talent

By William Atkinson

For some community banks, there is no better source of new employees who are both qualified and enthusiastic than those who have come through an internship program.

According to a 2015 internship and co-op survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the primary focus of most employers’ internship and co-op programs is to convert students into full-time entry-level employees. The survey also notes that the interns who are most likely to join companies full-time are those who have worked for a single employer on multiple occasions.

What do potential employers look for when screening applicants for internships? According to the NACE survey, the top five are the ability to work in a team, the ability to obtain and process information, organizational and planning skills, verbal communication skills, and decision-making and problem-solving skills.

While NACE focuses on internships at the college level, some employers offer internships for high school students, and others offer internships for both high school and college students.

Luring back college graduates
First Citizens Bank in Mason City, Iowa, with assets of $1.2 billion, launched its internship program as a way to make sure young people would return to their community after graduating college.

“We are largely focused on ag lending,” says Dan McGuire, senior vice president, human resources. “We looked at the demographics in rural banking employment and wanted to make sure that people would want to come back here after college. We also wanted to find a way to develop these people. Internships seemed like a good way to introduce young people to our organization.”

The bank had three interns last summer and is planning to have three more this summer. All of them are college juniors heading into their senior years. Many of the interns come to the bank as a result of the recruiting efforts at local colleges and universities, including college career fairs. “We have found that these students are prepared, well-dressed, have their resumes and are interested in talking,” says McGuire.

Rather than have the students work in just one department the whole summer, the bank rotates them through all of the departments, so they get a sense of the banking process as a whole, how the various departments interact with each other, and why each department exists.

“They spend a lot of time observing, but they do also get involved in some actual work assignments,” McGuire explains. “Then, near the end of the summer, we have them work on a focused project in the credit department.”

First Citizens is happy with the way its internship program is progressing. “It is easy to forget just how much energy youth can infuse into an organization,” says McGuire. “Interns tend to be very involved in technology, which reminds us of the importance of emphasizing and utilizing our own technology.”

Inspiring further study

Citizens Union Bank in Shelbyville, Ky., with assets of $575 million, launched its summer intern program in 2014. The bank selects two students who will be entering their senior year from each of the two local high schools. Students are selected through a combination of high school faculty recommendations, written applications and face-to-face interviews with bank managers.

Student interns work 16 hours a week (four hours a day, four days a week) for six weeks in the summer and earn $10 an hour. They are involved in individual assignments, projects, and tasks and receive daily coaching, as well as feedback and mentoring from bank officers and department heads. They work in marketing, accounting, risk management, IT, deposit operations and loan operations, where they are able to obtain hands-on experience.

“We make sure they are doing more than just administrative work, such as copying and running errands,” says David M. Bowling, CEO.

“We want them to learn something valuable from a career perspective. For example, we allow them to sit in on meetings and see how things really operate.”

Students also receive access to various members of executive management, during lunches and informal meetings, to ask them questions and discuss topics of interest.

At the end of the six weeks, students receive written performance evaluations. “We are also interested in hearing their perspectives on banks in general and our bank specifically,” says Bowling. “We ask them what we can do to make the intern program a more valuable experience for the students, because we want them to walk out of here feeling positive about banking in general and our bank in specific.”

The program has already paid off. “In two instances, we found interns who were providing a lot of value, and we needed more work done in that area, so we hired them to come back,” he says. “One came back after the summer to help us with IT work, such as troubleshooting PC issues, working the help desk, etcetera.”

It is too early to tell about future employment, because none of the interns have yet graduated college.

“However, maybe some day they will come back and work at the
bank,” says Bowling. “If nothing else, we hope that they will become customers over the long term.”

Some community banks provide internship experiences for both high school and college students. One of these is the $803 million-asset Fidelity Bank & Trust in Dubuque, Iowa.

“We know that the millennial generation has a huge effect on the banking industry,” says Jenni Noonan, e-banking/training officer at Fidelity. “In order to keep up with this new group of young people, we need
them employed and to use them as a resource.”

Tapping into millennials’ energy

Fidelity’s program started a number of years ago as a high-school-level “school to work” program, where high school students would come in after classes and learn about the customer service side of banking, such as teller skills. Over time, the bank realized that it wanted to keep some of these interns longer, so it expanded the program to allow promising students to come back and work at the bank during summers.

Even more recently, the bank expanded its efforts to create a formal college-level internship program, so that it would have the opportunity to employ these students after college. Many of the students who participated in the bank’s school-to-work program in high school have come back to intern with the bank during college breaks.

The college program offers a two-year internship. “We like to get interns who are starting their junior year of college,” says Noonan. “During this year, we introduce them to all departments of the bank, including customer service, operations, compliance and internal audit. They learn the flow of banking, including what it takes to open a new account [and] apply for a mortgage, and what happens behind the scenes.” Interns also participate in a special project during the summer, such as a marketing promotion project, and they work in committees, attend departmental meetings and planning sessions, and network inside and outside the bank.

During the second year (between their junior and senior years), the focus is on what specifically each intern would like to do in banking when he or she graduates. “For example, if someone wants to work in credit analysis, that student’s second‑year internship will focus on that,” Noonan says.

The bank has no problem attracting qualified interns, either at the high school or college level.

“Our biggest success in finding interns has been word of mouth,” Noonan says. “Our interns enjoy the experience so much that they tell their friends and schools about the program.” In an average year, the bank has about five high school interns and three college interns.

Learning on the job—Amanda Salzmann shows intern Cole Klostermann the ropes in Fidelity Bank & Trust’s credit analysis department.

Results? “Their ambition and attitudes are contagious,” says Noonan. “In addition, by having these millennials around, they can keep us informed on ways to attract people their own age to begin banking
with us.”

The biggest benefit, though, is that the bank has been able to retain many of these young people as employees after graduation. “Last year, for example, we had two senior-year college interns, and we were able to hire both of them when they graduated,” says Noonan.

At the state level

To make it easier for community banks in Iowa to launch and maintain internship programs, the Community Bankers of Iowa (CBI) Education Foundation in West Des Moines, Iowa, created the CBI Summer Intern Scholarship Program in 2015. It aims to encourage college students entering their junior and senior years in finance, accounting, business, agribusiness, marketing and management disciplines to find summer positions in community banks around the state. Each student who satisfactorily completes an internship and writes an essay about his or her experiences is awarded a $1,000 scholarship for the following school year.

“[Interns] can keep us informed on ways to attract people their own age to begin banking with us. ”
—jenni noonan,
fidelity bank & trust

“Banks that want to participate can call us,” says Kristin Lee, the program’s communications director. “They sign up for the program, and we provide marketing efforts for them. We also provide them with a recommended core curriculum, but they don’t have to follow it. Most of them do use it, though, and some have actually expanded on it.”

CBI also provides participating banks with textbooks that they can give to the interns. “Banks select their own interns and manage their own programs, but we will refer interns to them if they want us to,” says Lee.

According to Lee, one student found the interning experience so valuable that she decided to add finance to her agribusiness major. Another intern decided to go completely into finance after he saw how the bank helped a farmer save his business with a refinance.

When done well, internship programs can help inspire young people, spark new ideas in community banks and groom the
next generation of employees.

10 steps to a successful internship program

  1. Develop an intern orientation (including
    a welcome from senior management)
  2. Plan a community project for interns
  3. Try to schedule an event at least once a week
  4. Plan events during which interns will be all together, so they can bond
  5. Understand what the interns need in order to be successful
  6. Ask your training and development team what training it has that would benefit the interns
  7. See what training, presentations, or other events the organization as a whole is offering during the intern program
  8. Get the management involved
  9. Set dates for interns’ midterm and final evaluations
  10. Do a “shadowing” day to give interns breadth of experience

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.