Organizations work to convert interns to employees

Groups host Intern Connect and This Is West Michigan to showcase all that the region offers.
Jamon Alexander, standing, is the keynote speaker for the virtual West Michigan Intern Connect program scheduled for June 23. Courtesy Hello West Michigan

West Michigan organizations are working to make sure summer interns learn about the region’s diverse cultural, lifestyle and job opportunities in hopes they’ll have a great experience and put down roots.

Gentex and Lakeshore Advantage partnered in May to host a second annual kickoff event for Gentex interns, called This Is West Michigan, at the Lawrence Street Park bowl/music shelter in Zeeland. The outdoor gameshow-style event focused on familiarizing students with all of the seasonal attractions and lifestyle benefits the region offers, as well as educating them on cost-of-living and job opportunities.

Hello West Michigan, a regional talent attraction organization within The Right Place economic development agency, on June 23 will host a virtual half-day professional development conference called Intern Connect, its eighth annual event focused on helping interns connect with the community, their peers and local employers. To make the event happen, Hello West Michigan works with a host of area partners who all have the same goal of retaining talented young graduates in West Michigan.

This Is West Michigan

Dan Quintanilla, director of talent acquisition, manages the Gentex internship program. He said this year, Gentex has 86 interns from 23 different colleges or universities — its biggest class ever — of which 78 attended This Is West Michigan. Thirty-five of the interns live more than 55 miles away from Gentex, with most of those interns relocating to the area for the summer. Ten of the interns come from eight states outside of Michigan, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri and Nevada. The interns are working in 20 different departments at Gentex, including manufacturing; chemical, mechanical and electrical engineering; marketing and communications; human resources; and accounting.

Summer interns at Gentex participate in a series of teambuilding events to get to know each other better and to explore the area, such as scavenger hunts that take the students to places such as John Ball Zoo, the beaches and the local restaurants. The HR team also sets up meetings with each department leader so interns can understand how departments work together to achieve business goals.

This Is West Michigan was geared toward providing a fun way for the interns to meet each other in person — with social distancing in place — and get to know their temporary home in hopes they’ll someday make it permanent.

“If you’re thinking about, is this somewhere I want to have a career and I want to live, (you ask) what are the things that I like to do, that I have fun doing back at home, that I can do here in West Michigan?” Quintanilla said.

To help answer those questions at the event, Lakeshore Advantage staged “Family Feud”- and “The Price Is Right”-style games in which interns had to guess the answers to questions including what is the cost of things such as ice cream, park fees, boating, lodging and housing; how many theaters and concert venues there are; and what kind of night life students will have access to, not just on the lakeshore but in greater Grand Rapids.

Lakeshore Advantage provided the interns with a choose-your-own-adventure-style guide for things to do in the region, and Ottawa County donated free seasonal park passes to encourage them to have outdoor adventures in public spaces.

The event organizers also presented information on what types of industries and businesses are located in Ottawa County and what their impact on the world stage is.

For example, many interns do not know before they come to Gentex the pivotal role the company plays in technology integration systems that come in many vehicles and appliances on the market today.

Depending on the age of the intern, Quintanilla said some of the Holland/Zeeland area’s top selling points include the many breweries and distilleries; the state having four seasons for outdoor recreation; its proximity to Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids, Detroit and Chicago; the region’s population growth; and the increasing number of world-class manufacturing and technology companies based here.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data cited by Lakeshore Advantage, Ottawa County is the fastest-growing county in the state, with a growth rate of 11.7% from 2010 to 2020. Forty-seven percent of the growth was due to natural increases, i.e., more births than deaths, and 53% was due to positive net migration, or more people moving into the county than out of it.

Not far behind, Allegan County is the fourth fastest-growing county in the state. Greater Grand Rapids as a whole recently was ranked among the 50 best metro areas for STEM professionals by the personal finance website Wallethub.

Although Quintanilla said Gentex doesn’t have a record of how many of its previous interns accepted job offers within the company, he did say the company has a 90% job offer acceptance rate overall, and about 20 individuals in this year’s class are repeat interns from the previous year, which he views as a positive sign.

Emily Staley, director of marketing and communications at Lakeshore Advantage, said 49% of the Ottawa and Allegan county companies Lakeshore Advantage interviews each year do some sort of internship, apprenticeship or co-op program, and any of them should feel free to reach out to Lakeshore Advantage if they would like to partner on an event similar to This Is West Michigan for their interns.

“We built the program, so it can be kind of standalone, and we can share it with them,” Staley said. “Offering that engaging, valuable experience … helping (interns) picture what a career would look like at their organizations and getting them engaged and connected with the community in some way, whether it’s with other interns that are interning at your company, or with an organization like Holland Young Professionals, or reaching out to Hello West Michigan, being connected to the community and understanding the whole picture of what a career and life would look like here in West Michigan — it’s our opportunity to really showcase that.”

Intern Connect

If interns would like an in-depth opportunity for professional development, they can register for the West Michigan Intern Connect event Hello West Michigan is hosting from 9 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. June 23.

Jessica Kuster is program manager at Hello West Michigan, and she said the organization has been hosting Intern Connect since 2014. Last year was the first year it went all virtual, and it will be again this year.

Started by local companies in 2007, Hello West Michigan promotes the region as a place where business thrives and where people want to live and work. It seeks to increase the rate of success its member companies have in their efforts to recruit top talent, and it collaborates with organizations across the region to help new residents and those interested in relocating find their fit in West Michigan.

That mission extends to Intern Connect. This year, college students from any location will have the opportunity to participate in the program, as many internships were canceled due to the pandemic, and students are in need of networking and career development opportunities.

Kuster said the event format has morphed over the years. Last year, due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the organization was able to reuse recorded content from the live event in 2019 on positive communication and adulting, then added a live keynote speaker who talked about how to be successful working from home.

This year, topics will include working with your managers, relationship building and a young professional panel again discussing “real talk on adulting.” Jamon Alexander, president and CEO of WMCAT, will be the keynote.

In addition to the half-day virtual conference, Intern Connect registrants have access to an exclusive series of virtual connection events, plus they’ll receive The Intern Inform, a weekly e-newsletter to keep them engaged all summer.

“A lot of companies pulled back on professional development last year because of financial or logistical reasons related to the pandemic,” said Rachel Gray, executive director of Hello West Michigan. “But investing in the future workforce is critical for our regional economy. As the trend of ‘companies follow the talent’ continues, our region needs to continue to invest in the talent we have here, show them West Michigan wants them and retain them in the region.”

This year, Hello West Michigan also partnered with the city of Grand Rapids to send the GRow1000 students to Intern Connect. GRow1000, the city’s summer youth employment program, works to place students ages 15 to 24 at local companies. Through a grant from Ernst & Young, 200 students ages 18-24 will be able to attend Intern Connect.

Kuster said the Intern Connect event and the associated networking opportunities throughout the summer will not only give interns and students information about lifestyle and housing options, but will provide them with information on volunteer opportunities, festivals and off-the-beaten path places to go.

Hello West Michigan typically averages around 500 attendees per year at the Intern Connect event, and Kuster said she hopes this year will be no different.

Tickets for Intern Connect are $25 and can be purchased up to the date of the event. Interns can register individually at, or companies can pay for their registration by contacting Hello West Michigan.

As in 2020, Hello West Michigan will again offer their “Champion an Intern” ticket program. Any individual can sponsor an intern ticket for $25, and the ticket will be given to a student who has had their internship canceled or couldn’t find one for the summer. Instructions for the sponsorship program are on the event website.

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