Redesigning a summer internship program: Sivu Suppiah shares how ITW made a massive shift during COVID-19

We had to be mindful that the environment can change at any point and we must be able to pivot depending on the situation. Sivu Suppiah
As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the country in March, ITW Manager of Talent Acquisition and Leadership Development Sivu Suppiah and her team realized they would need to completely redesign their U.S. summer internship program.

“We're a Fortune 200 global industrial company,” Sivu said. “We have a diversified business portfolio comprised of seven industry leading segments. The impact of COVID-19 on our facilities across the U.S. varied greatly with many continuing to operate due to the essential products and services we provide to our customers. However, others experienced periods of closures and reduced schedules due to government mandates.”

By the end of March, Sivu and her team realized the pandemic was going to impact ITW's summer internship program.

Interns are a key element of ITW's talent strategy, and by the time the pandemic hit, they had already filled 115 positions for the summer.

“I started evaluating how we could potentially deliver a meaningful experience to the interns we had already committed to, while prioritizing their safety and well-being,” said Sivu.

Due to the nature of the businesses, and significant number of engineering internship assignments, many of their assignments could not be only virtual, so Sivu knew they had to figure out a way to keep an in-person piece of the program intact.

“Many of our internships are in engineering. Some may be product testing in labs or working on the production floor with machinery,” Sivu said. “This type of learning is difficult to replicate in a virtual environment.”

The program's framework was robust and had been improved upon each year, but Sivu needed to take a step back and consider unique options for the redesign.

I started evaluating how we could potentially deliver a meaningful experience to the interns we had already committed to, while prioritizing their safety and well-being. Sivu Suppiah
Their internship assignments typically take place in a few core geographies — which are areas where there's a large concentration of ITW businesses, such as Chicagoland, Appleton, Wisconsin, Troy, Ohio, and the Carolinas.

“Our typical internship lasted 12 weeks and required the interns to be present at an ITW business location. Approximately every two weeks, interns would attend professional development events — trainings, workshops, and social networking sessions — at one of ITW's offices in their region,” said Sivu.

“The situation continues to evolve and there's a lot of uncertainty,” she said. “We wanted to move full steam ahead, but we also needed to have contingency plans. We had to be mindful that the environment can change at any point and we must be able to pivot depending on the situation.”

To accommodate many states' stay-at-home orders, the team decided to shorten the program to eight weeks.

Sivu said they chose to bump the start date from mid-May to June, which would allow enough time for ITW's plants to reopen in accordance with stay-at-home orders.

We're providing five virtual programming events focused on professional development. Sivu Suppiah
The team also planned virtual programming for the interns. “We're providing five virtual programming events focused on professional development,” Sivu said. “We will also have virtual networking sessions in partnership with our employee resource groups. This will enable interns to meet individuals outside of their normal working teams and learn more about potential career paths and ITW.”

She added they have tools to help interns stay connected, such as an intern microsite which includes an intern directory and company blog, as well as a Microsoft Teams group to virtually connect.

“These tools will allow us to provide content, such as online trainings and blogs where interns can learn from other ITW employees and see what the different ITW experiences may look like,” she said.

ITW was able to move forward with the vast majority of their intern commitments and provided support for any canceled assignments.

We are experimenting with different technologies to make it still feel interactive and engaging. Sivu Suppiah
“Before we cancelled any internship assignments, we explored the possibility of assigning those interns to another business location that may have been open and had a role that was a good fit for them,” said Sivu. “If we had to cancel an internship, we offered interns a monetary stipend, virtual professional development sessions, and either a commitment, where possible, for a spot in next year’s program or, for rising seniors, priority consideration for future full-time positions. We hope this approach offers a meaningful ITW experience to this group, which is the main goal of our internship program.”

There were a lot of moving pieces when it came to getting buy-in for the new program, so Sivu put together a proposal in early April and it was brought to ITW's leadership team.

According to Sivu, they didn't experience any issues getting the buy-in needed on the proposal due to their leaders' commitment to this critical talent segment and doing what's right in view of the current situation and commitment to ITW's long-term talent strategy.

ITW also has an “Intern Working Team,” which includes HR representatives from each of their seven business segments who are responsible for executing the Internship Program within their businesses.

“We had regular check-ins with them to get their feedback and help us with this redesign. They were integral in providing feedback from their interns and their local teams on the feasibility of this redesigned intern program,” Sivu said. “They've been vital in helping us pivot and pull this together so quickly.”

After the proposal was approved, the Intern Working Team reviewed with their local teams on the feasibility of hosting an intern at their location during the summer. There was a lot of cross-collaboration in trying to provide interns with an ITW experience, regardless of the initial manager or team they were hired into.

Once the program kicks off, Sivu is excited to see how the interns enjoy the virtual experience and resources.

I'm eager to see how they enjoy the program and get their feedback, so we can continue improving the program. Sivu Suppiah
“Since we have done all our events in-person, such as our Kick-Off Event and Closing Conferences, we are experimenting with different technologies to make it still feel interactive and engaging,” she said. “Also, we usually use an external improv group to do our effective communication training to make it light and fun for the interns. I'm excited to see how all this translates to a virtual environment.”

Sivu said they intend to send out ITW swag bag welcome kits to each intern and host virtual networking happy hours. They will also be sending out weekly quick pulse feedback surveys to get immediate feedback on changes they can make to the events.

“Most of these interns have been doing college classes remotely the past couple of months, so they're already used to these virtual experiences,” she said. “I'm eager to see how they enjoy the program and get their feedback, so we can continue improving the program.”

Sivu said the process allowed her team to think outside the box and experiment with tools they otherwise wouldn't have.

“I am looking forward to seeing how we can further evolve our internship next year, based on this year's changes and the feedback we will receive. I am sure we will still integrate a lot of the technology tools,” she said.

She added it was reassuring to see the organization's commitment to their early career pipeline.

“There was never a question on providing an ITW experience to all of our interns,” said Sivu. “While the components may look different this year, we are very proud in that we were able to provide a safe and meaningful learning experience to them all, despite the current situation.”

Sivu Suppiah has been a Talent Marketing Board member since 2019. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.