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Internship Program Helps Rebuild Los Angeles

September 1, 1993
Related Topics: Career Development, Behavioral Training, Candidate Sourcing, Employee Career Development, Featured Article
On April 28, 1992, civil unrest broke out in Los Angeles. For three days, smoke and flames engulfed buildings in the heart of the city as people were killed and hundreds of small businesses were looted and destroyed.

Even large companies, such as the Los Angeles Times, couldn't escape the riots. Two hours after the disturbance began, angry citizens started breaking windows of the newspaper's buildings at Times Mirror Square. One employee was trapped in the offices and watched from the building's upper windows as rioters overturned cars and started fires.

Concerned about the future of Los Angeles, EuGene Falk, executive vice president and general manager at the Times, decided to act. He called in the heads of four departments—training and development, the publisher's suite, employment and community relations—and told them his idea. In response to the civil uprising, Falk wanted to provide jobs for youth whose lives had been affected by the violence.

This type of concern for the community wasn't new to the Times. The newspaper has been around as long as Los Angeles, and it has a history of community-service projects. Bill Bradley, senior HR development consultant to the Times, says that this practice benefits the company in the long term. Because many cities are deteriorating, businesses have the ability to improve them with service projects that, for example, increase literacy levels among citizens or reduce tension among diverse groups. By empowering the community base in this way, service projects make the city—and ultimately the companies in it—stronger. "Los Angeles isn't going to get better by our wishing it that way," Bradley says. "It isn't going to get better by waiting for somebody else to do it."

In July 1992, the Times hired 50 area youths for its Summer Jobs Training Program. The eight-week program provides paid internships for high-potential/low-opportunity students. The 16-to 22-year-old interns come from ethnically diverse backgrounds and have varied levels of education. To meet their needs, the internship program is divided into four parts:

  • Work experience
  • Classroom training
  • Job-skill and computer literacy
  • A mentorship program.

Training is what makes this internship program work. Because the Times isn't planning to recruit these interns for full-time jobs, the primary objective is to prepare them for future employment in any corporation. To best accomplish this goal, the program provides interns with 75% work experience and 25% life-skills training. Jeanne Hartley, manager of training and development at the Times, says that part of Falk's plan was to provide the interns with more than work experience. "He wanted to help people get their next job," she says. "He said, 'I don't want to throw pennies; I want to throw a lifesaver.' "

Internal and external partnerships strengthen the program.
Before bringing in the interns, the Times had to prepare for them. Because summer was approaching quickly, the newspaper had only 30 days to develop the entire program, select the interns and put them to work.

The four department heads called on by Falk became the steering committee. This committee established the internship's general guidelines, deciding the number of interns the company would hire, how long they would work and the type of training they would receive. That accomplished, the committee members negotiated with senior management for financial resources. (The first year, the program was funded by designated money from management. In 1993, the individual departments paid for the program from their operating budgets.)

From these first stages, the steering committee was concerned about attaining the necessary companywide commitment to the program. Marilyn Lee, vice president of employee relations at the Times, says that having Falk's backing made the buy-in process easier. "A company needs a senior manager who's really behind the program. This gives it the mandate to move forward on a new idea," she says.

To gain support from department heads, Lee and the members of the committee explained the internship program to them in detail. Although such departments as editorial and advertising had hired a few college students as interns in the past, other departments had no experience with interns. "We tried to talk to department heads individually who hadn't had summer interns in the past. Some said, 'We don't have the money to do this,' " Lee says. She worked with the committee to explain how the program would benefit these departments. For example, Lee reminded them that, once trained, the interns could contribute significantly to alleviating the departments' work loads.

Hartley says that this type of over-communication was one of the committee's goals. Employees at all levels were made aware of the program. To ensure that employees were informed adequately about the internship's progress, the committee sent dozens of notes to everyone involved. This helped maintain a high level of trust throughout the organization and gave the program the commitment that it needed to assure that employees would support it (see "How HR Attained Company Buy-in for Its Internship Program").

In addition to securing this commitment, the steering committee established several external partnerships. These partners provided expertise in areas in which the committee didn't have sufficient background. They played an important role in making the internship program a success.

For example, Hartley says that the committee anticipated some ethnic conflict among the students because of the unrest in Los Angeles. They wanted help preparing the Times for this possible friction. "I'm very aware that we're in the newspaper business, and our managers and supervisors are in the newspaper business," Hartley says. "We aren't social workers. We didn't want to take away from the managers' and supervisors' everyday jobs by making them become social workers." Their solution was an external partnership: They hired three senior interns from area universities to run the social aspects of the program. Two of them were doing doctoral studies in psychology; the third was working on a master's degree in social work. These senior interns were influential in such areas as interviewing, hiring and diversity training.

Next, the Times established partnerships with volunteer agencies that represented the ethnic groups most seriously affected by the unrest. The Times asked for their help in selecting interns for the program. The agencies involved were:

  • Mexican-American Opportunities Foundation
  • Stuart M. Ketchum Downtown YMCA
  • Urban League
  • Chinatown Service Center
  • Korean Youth Center.

To find the most-qualified youth, the Times asked these agencies to screen applicants from their areas. One consideration in selecting the interns was how the riots had affected each individual. "We had people who suffered directly from the April crisis," Bradley says. "One I remember very distinctly was a young woman whose brother was killed." The agencies also recommended students based on such criteria as community leadership, financial need and limited previous opportunity.

The prescreening process worked. "All of the young people were involved in programs that those agencies were providing in their communities," says Barbara Neder, who is involved in the internship program as the administrator of the Times Learning Center. "This wasn't somebody just walking in off the street saying, 'Give me a job.' We really had the cream of the crop."

To complete the selection process, each student took drug-and alcohol-screening tests—a standard procedure for prospective employees to the Times. Denise Burt, one of the senior interns, also interviewed each applicant. During the interview, Burt gave the students a list of job descriptions and asked them which sounded the most interesting and why. Using this information, the senior interns placed the students in jobs at both the Olympic Plant, which is the printing and mailing center for the newspaper, and Times Mirror Square, where the paper is produced. "We did the placement according to the students' interests and what was available at the Times. We tried to match them up with the type of work they preferred," Burt says.

Valuable on-the-job training makes students' futures brighter.
The Times placed interns in virtually every area of the newspaper, from circulation to the supply room. The job skills that they acquired varied greatly from department to department. Some students loaded trucks with newspapers or performed other manual labor. Others primarily did office work: data entry, customer service or filing.

Regardless of where the students worked, someone had to teach them the skills necessary for the job. The interns learned these skills from supervisors assigned to them from within their specific departments. For many of the supervisors, this was a new—and challenging—experience. "This was really new for the organization," Neder says. "We had a lot of anxiety among the employees: 'What kind of work can we give them? This is an alien—it's a teenager.' "

The Times tried to calm these fears by offering a half-day training session for all supervisors who would be managing interns. In the session, the training staff concentrated on such issues as diversity, how to discipline, what to expect from the interns and how to communicate best with them. This was difficult in 1992, because the program was new. However, as the company has become familiar with running the internship program, training has become more complete. "Last year, it was more of a briefing, because we didn't know what to expect," says Burt, who now is program coordinator. "This year, it was much more interactive. We brought in supervisors from last year, who spoke about their experiences."

Ken Jolly, mailroom supervisor at the Times, was in charge of six interns last year. This summer, he supervised 10. He says that the first year would have been much more difficult without the training staff's assistance. "There was constant support from the staff who were overseeing the interns. They were always in contact with us, trying to work through any details or questions we had," Jolly says.

Despite this guidance, Jolly says that managing interns differed from managing full-time, adult employees. SomeTimes when he asked the interns to do a job, he says that they responded " 'My mom won't let me do this,' or 'My dad won't let me do this.' "

In one case, parental intervention was carried to an extreme. Jolly says that one student's father pulled his son out of the internship program because he wasn't living up to expectations at home. The intern left the Times two weeks before the program ended. Jolly says he was disappointed, because the student was working hard at the Times and was a consistent employee. "For me, it was a little frustrating to see that happen," he says. "I didn't know what my position was as far as talking to the father and saying, 'Hey, this kid's really doing well.' I tried to an extent, but the intern's a minor and I really had no choice in the matter."

Other than this problem, Jolly says that his apprehensions were unfounded. The interns worked well together and acquired skills that he believes will help them attain future employment.

Classes offer interns training in life skills.
Not all of what the interns learn is job-related. One-fourth of the time, the interns receive other types of training through special life-skills classes, the Learning Center and a mentorship system.

When implementing the internship program, Bradley worked with the senior interns to develop eight special classes. Because many of the students had never been part of a company before, these classes covered general employment issues and life skills. The workshops were four hours long, once a week.

When planning the classes, Bradley and the senior interns looked at the big picture. One of the issues that they focused on was diversity. Because they wanted to improve communication among the students from various backgrounds, the staff divided the interns into groups that were diverse in terms of gender and race. The interns then attended the classes in these groups of 12 or 13 people each. "They always were interacting with people who were different from themselves," Bradley says.

To provide the interns with the best instruction possible, the Times staff formed an external partnership with the Los Angeles chapter of the American Society of Training and Development. Through this organization, the Times contacted professional trainers in the area, who taught one class each. The eight sessions offered in 1992 were:

  1. Work Ethic and Employment Expectations: This class explained basic work expectations and helped the interns feel comfortable about working at the Times (see "The Times Teaches Interns Basic Work Behavior").
  2. Life Skills with the Newspaper: To help the interns become familiar with the Times, the company showed them how to make better use of the paper. The students received such tips as where to find the most information in an article and how to use the classifieds to buy a car.
  3. Cultural Diversity Awareness: In this session, the interns discussed differences between the genders and among ethnic groups with a leading diversity trainer from the Los Angeles area.
  4. Times' Employee Panel and Discussion: For this class, Times employees from various ethnic backgrounds talked about their career paths.
  5. Career Development and Interviewing Skills: This class offered the interns valuable advice and information on interviewing, resume writing and job hunting.
  6. Stress Management and Financial Planning: This session discussed ways to manage stress. Also, the class covered such practical financial information as how to balance a checkbook. This was particularly important because the interns were being paid $7.50 an hour, more than many of their parents were earning.
  7. Diversity in the Workplace: Because the Times considered diversity to be especially important, the company offered a second class on the topic. In this session, the discussion concentrated on workplace issues.
  8. Grand Finale Celebration with Guest Speakers: In recognition of completing the program, the final session was a party for the interns and a presentation by professional trainers from the Los Angeles area.

Interns receive necessary individual attention.
In addition to the classes, the senior interns schedule at least two individual career-counseling sessions for each of the program participants. In these sessions, the senior interns talk with the students about possible career interests and discuss the educational requirements for each desired job. This one-on-one attention helps the interns better understand their options. For this reason, Bradley says that this was one of the most successful parts of the program in 1992.

A similar facet of the internships is the mentorship program. To give the students individual role models in the work environment, the Times asks employees to volunteer to be mentors. To prepare the employees for their new leadership roles, the Times holds an initial training class. Like the supervisors' training session, this class has improved over time. One addition this summer was a formal breakfast for all of the interns and their mentors.

The first summer, the mentors basically were on their own to make the relationship a strong one, according to Mitzi Yamaguchi, an employee in creative services. Yamaguchi says that she had a positive experience with her mentee. "We went to lunch and took walks," she says. "SomeTimes the people in our department got together and walked around the building for exercise. I invited her to come along." Although some of the mentors and interns had a more professional relationship, Yamaguchi says that she gave her mentee both career and personal advice. "I was more than her mentor," she says. "We were friends." Yamaguchi says that the mentorship program is most successful when both the intern and employee make a genuine effort to communicate.

The final training aspect of the internship program is in the Learning Center, which Hartley calls "the jewel of the program." The center, which houses 13 IBM-compatible computers, is available for use by the interns, as well as by full-time employees at the Times and people from the community. Interns use the lab during work hours; they talk to their supervisors to decide when, and how frequently, they want and need this training.

The primary function of the lab is to help interns become computer literate, or improve the skills they already possess. The computer programs that interns used most during the first summer were tutorials in typing, word processing and computer programming. "Many of the students who were college-bound immediately recognized the importance of typing," Neder says. One student particularly benefited. He had taken programming classes in high school and wanted to continue studying computer programming in college. There was one problem—he didn't know how to type. That student went to the center two or three Times a week to practice touch-typing.

There are other options available at the Learning Center. Some students use the computers to work on academic skills, such as English or math, that can help them pass the GED or finish high school. The Learning Center also assists interns who need job-skills training. Neder says that the interns came to her with their individual work concerns. "Maybe it was, 'Gee, I have to cover the reception desk at lunch and answer phone calls and take messages. I'm a little nervous about doing that. I've never taken phone messages. What do I do?' " Neder could help—the Learning Center has videos on telephone etiquette.

Another common fear involved filing. "Interns said to me, 'I have to file. How do you know where they go? I know my ABCs, but this is different,' " Neder says. She set up sample files and helped the worried interns practice their filing skills. Teaching basics such as these helps the students be more efficient on the job.

The Learning Center helps improve the internship program, too. In an initial two-hour visit of the center, each intern takes a skill-level assessment. This test helps the center's staff know what programs the students will be using and how often they will come to the lab. It also helps the Times know what to expect from the group. This was especially true during the first summer, when employees were nervous about supervising teenagers. "When the supervisors called and wanted some confirmation, we could say, 'It's going to be OK. They're pretty smart kids. They'll be able to do it.' That helped calm some of the anxieties the supervisors were feeling," Neder says.

The computer lab also provides the interns with an added benefit. Time in the center gives the students a chance to get to know each other in a relaxed environment. Neder sees this as one of the best aspects of the computer lab. In 1992, six of the interns came to the center in the morning, twice a week, and called themselves The Breakfast Club. Neder says that they spent a lot of time talking, and that the computer lab became a type of peer-counseling center. "It wasn't just being social or goofing off," she explains. "It was really needed."

The Times plans to continue—and expand—the internship program.
Although the initial implementation is out of the way, the Times continues to change and improve the internship program. For 1993, the newspaper changed the program's name to the Youth Jobs Training Program. The company plans to expand the program and offer a winter session. Although the training staff doesn't have any specifics on the expansion yet, Hartley says that the plans are definite. She says the winter session will have a double benefit: It will offer more employment opportunities to area youth and will provide the newspaper vacation coverage in the winter, a season when the Times is often short-staffed. "We think that it'll be helpful for the Times, too," Hartley says.

In the meantime, small changes are being made each year. In 1993, the Times increased the number of interns hired from 50 to 75. The company also added new program locations—placing interns in both its Orange County and San Fernando Valley facilities. Each facility now has a miniature Learning Center of its own for use by both full-time employees and interns.

"Some of the interns already ahve used their newly acquired skills to find jobs. One intern was hired by a law firm to fill a clerical position."

The staff also shortened the training classes from four hours to three hours, after realizing that the students have shorter attention spans than adults. In addition, the staff increased the class size to about 25 students each. This was a change made, in part, because of intern feedback. The interns said that they wanted more opportunites to get to know the others in the program. By making this change, the Times could provide a better overall summer for the students. "They wanted to get a sense of wholeness, of 'us, the interns,' " Neder says. "We took a look at that."

In another attempt to make the interns a tighter-knit group, the Times initiated an orientation day in the Malibu Hills. The goals of this outing were simple. "We wanted them to bond with each other, gain self-esteem and feel comfortable talking with other people," Bradley says. To accomplish this, the company bused the interns to the retreat atmosphere on the third day of their internships. There, the students played games designed to improve teamwork and cooperation. One of the games was a modified version of volleyball with new rules that required all members of the team to work together in order to win. This was successful in bringing the interns together and preparing them for the summer.

As the Times prepares for the third year of the Youth Jobs Training Program, positive results already are evident. Jolly says that he could see changes during the first eight weeks. "You could actually see the development taking place in some of these kids," he says. "They really grasped the skills being taught in the program. It was like having a six-or eight-week summer tutor who was there helping them out constantly."

Some of the interns already have used their newly acquired skills to find jobs. One such intern was hired by a law firm to fill a clerical position. "The young woman said she never would have had the confidence to apply without the Times experience," Neder says.

The students aren't the only ones who benefit. Jolly says that supervising the interns has helped him understand the city's racial struggles. "I think that the tensions that take place in Los Angeles aren't centered around our youth. They want to make a positive impact. It's their environments and outside forces that work against them," he says. Jolly says that he also can see how the Times internships help the students. "I think that these types of programs give these kids an option or a different way of looking at the future," he adds.

The program also contributes to the improvement of the newspaper. In one way, the internship program serves as a natural form of recruitment. Lee says that when the interns return to college or high school in the fall, they talk to fellow students about their summer experience. This helps spread the word to other graduates that the Times offers a multitude of job opportunities. "It isn't always understood what kinds of jobs are available here," Lee says. "People think of reporting, or see a Times truck and think that maybe it's people who deliver the newspaper. There's a whole array of jobs here that are interesting and well-paying. By getting more young people inside the newspaper for work experience, they'll be more knowledgeable and talk to friends. That way, we'll get the best applicants."

In addition, the internship program helps the newspaper serve as a role model for other businesses in Los Angeles. "If every big company here did this, you would see thousands and thousands of students being employed in these special programs," Bradley says. This type of community involvement makes the city a better place, potentially creating a better future for the newspaper.

Meanwhile, the Times is becoming a stronger company. Bradley says that he noticed a difference in the atmosphere at the newspaper after the first group of interns. "Our supervisors became better managers and our mentors became better workers," he says. "Overall, the Times became a better company."

Personnel Journal, September 1993, Vol. 72, No.9, pp. 120-129.

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