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Paying interns makes cents

Kyle Zastrow, a senior at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, stands outside a field trailer Friday at The Boldt Co.’s project site at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin in Wauwatosa. Zastrow is working this summer as a field engineering intern for Boldt. (Staff photo by Kevin Harnack)

By Caley Clinton

In order to work in my chosen profession, I first had to work for free.

No newspaper worth its headlines is going to hire a reporter without a stack of clips, or published articles, but most newspapers also do not have the cash to pay would-be journalists eager to get that real world experience. So during college, I juggled paying gigs, such as an embarrassing stint writing copy for a cow-themed online retailer (sample write-up: “This cow-print tie is udderly delightful!”) with my unpaid, but beloved, work at Madison-area newspapers.

The cow job was the opposite of the type of writing I wanted to do, but they paid me $15 an hour, so it was hard to say no.

Today’s aspiring field engineers, architects and others with construction industry interest have better options, though.

They’re able to make $12 to $15 an hour, before graduating college, by interning in the field at companies such as The Boldt Co., Appleton.

“Some kids are lucky to get a minimum pay job in the summers,” said Kyle Zastrow, 22, a UW-Platteville senior civil engineering major interning with Boldt this summer. “What I’m getting is pay that not a lot of kids our age get to see.”

And Boldt is getting what it pays for, said Jamie Nenahlo, the company’s director of employee services.

“Interns provide a lot of value to the projects,” he said. “After our interns leave, we’ve had to go hire full-time people because the project manager can’t do without them.”

Zastrow works 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday at the Children’s Hospital site in Wauwatosa where Boldt is completing a series of additions and renovations. He writes contracts and change orders, sets up schedules, provides rough estimating and does a variety of other tasks.

“They want me to take it on myself to get stuff done,” Zastrow said.

Finding interns who can be trusted to do so takes work, Nenahlo said. The company first interviews potential candidates at college job fairs. Then it sets up the best candidates for interviews with the leaders of different business units to find the right match.

The result at Boldt offices nationwide is an annual pool of about 30 interns from which the company can later fill full-time positions without going through the recruiting and hiring process. Last year, Nenahlo said, more than half of the interns were hired on full time.

“Some companies’ intern programs are like herding cattle,” he said. “They’re looking for a few that will stick out of hundreds.

“We think we’re being a little bit more diligent and responsible in the process.”

The front-end focus also helps, Nenahlo said, in persuading senior Boldt staff members to take a chance on the soon-to-be graduates and trust them with real responsibility – not fetching coffee.

“When we first started the program, there was a little bit of reluctance,” he said, “because people thought they would have to spend a lot of time training interns. But as we showed that the people we were bringing in were very talented, Boldt staff figured out they were a resource they could use.”

And because of the steady pay, Boldt interns can focus on the tasks at hand instead of dividing their time between internships and jobs that pay the bills.

Every newspaper I’ve worked at, by contrast, has had to work around interns’ limited availability because they’re juggling work as lifeguards, nannies, waiters, whatever pays. It’s hard to demand that people work nine hours a day when they’re not getting a paycheck.

Boldt is bigger than most of the contractors in Wisconsin, so recommending that everyone follow its lead is impractical. But even those who cannot afford such an expansive internship program should at least adopt the Boldt philosophy of grooming a new generation of productive workers who appreciate a company’s foresight and, not incidentally, its cash.

Caley Clinton is associate editor of The Daily Reporter and at home still uses a vestige of her college job: a cow-print coffee mug, complete with udders. She can be reached at caley.clinton@dailyreporter.com.

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