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Oliva Mora’s new job at SMRT Architects and Engineers in Portland is on familiar turf. The 24-year-old is a full-time architectural designer at the firm where she was twice a summer intern. She grew up in Windham and studied at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.
“Now I don’t have to leave in the middle of the project to go back to school,” the 24-year-old says ahead of her first day on the job, which happens to be in the same building where her grandfather once worked in a bakery. “I can actually get into a project.”
She was SMRT’s only summer intern in 2021, working on a wide range of supervised projects starting with computer renderings for a building-façade replacement. This summer, the firm is hosting seven interns, including one from India and another studying in France and England, after formalizing the program this year. That entails targeting schools in New England and beyond with high diversity rates, posting opportunities on general job sites including LinkedIn and Indeed, and involving senior professional staff in recruiting and mentoring.
“It’s a work in progress as we start to figure out what works,” says HR executive Samantha Knight. “Diversity improves creativity across the board, so the more we can get diverse perspectives, the better.”
Mora says she finds it “super-empowering” to work at a firm led by a woman — Ellen Belknap, who joined the firm as an intern in 1986.
“It gives [former] interns like me hope that this could happen to me,” Mora says. “There are ways to climb up and grow as a person.”
With Maine’s jobless rate at a historic low, employers are hiring interns to attract — and test — young talent and build loyalty. That mirrors a national trend, as shown in an April report by the National Association of Colleges and Employers. It surveyed close to 300 organizations nationwide who said they expect to increase their intern hiring by 9.1% this year.
Today in Maine, Chelsea Livingston of Falmouth-based KMA Human Resources Consulting sees a stronger push by employers at colleges and more job fairs targeting students as young as high-school age. The recruiting services manager also reports an increase in paid internships as well as paid training programs for hard-to-fill roles, including in police departments and the trades.
“The strategy of building a candidate pipeline through internships is appropriate for companies that can afford to pay and manage interns in what can seem like a really long job interview,” Livingston says. “In the end, if it’s a good fit, it’s a win-win.”
At Bath Iron Works, Samantha Mason went from summer internship to full-time employment in 2021.
The 24-year-old Maine Maritime Academy alumna is a planning project manager at BIW, a division of General Dynamics Corp. that designs, builds and maintains Navy combat vessels. She was hired before finishing her internship.
“I definitely thought of the internship as a great avenue to transition to a job, but I didn’t have any expectations of it happening so fast,” she says. “It was nice to know they valued me as a real fit as much as I thought of them as a great fit.”
During her internship, she worked on projects including the Kitting Terminal, a facility that manages the last mile of the supply chain for construction of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.
For Mason, who’s currently developing a process and detailed plan for testing structural ship components, working at the naval shipyard has personal significance because of many family members who have served in the Navy.
“When you see a ship sailing away, you understand what this is all about,” she says.
This summer, BIW is hosting 24 interns. The company has expanded the program with a more flexible timeline to accommodate students with different academic schedules and commitments and also hosts interns during the school year and over winter break, says Vanessa Snyder, an HR executive at BIW.
“This year’s program has a heavy emphasis on engineering as we anticipate increased hiring in those departments,” she says.
Snyder notes that it’s not unusual for interns to spend more than one summer at BIW, adding, “The more time they can spend with us, the better their experiential learning can be.”
Law school classmates J Shinay and Dhivya Singaram are colleagues this summer at Portland law firm Bernstein Shur, adding to their resumés before their third and final year at the University of Maine School of Law.
“As summer associates here, we are functionally treated the way a normal associate would be treated in terms of the level of work and the acknowledgement of our abilities,” says 31-year-old Shinay, who worked at the firm last summer via the Maine Diversity Summer Associate Program. “We are touching real work, real clients, real research … much more compelling than the abstract work we do in school.”
Illustrating that point, Singaram recalls an anecdote from her internship at another firm last summer: “The attorney turned to me and said, ‘What do you think?’ That was a moment to me of just feeling seen, and that felt amazing.”
On her first day at Bernstein Shur earlier this month, the 26-year-old drafted a motion on a case she was told may go to trial: “It’s a reminder that we are expected to do things like this because we can do things like this.”
As part of the firm’s 12-week program, the two will spend eight weeks at Bernstein Shur followed by three weeks of pro bono work at outside legal service providers. The pro bono component is one way Bernstein Shur aims to stand out to prospective interns, says CEO Joan Fortin, a 1994 summer associate at the firm that became her career home.
For law firms today, competition for summer associates “has become fierce,” she says. “The process is driven by big firms in larger cities, and they are starting the process earlier each year.”
This July, Bernstein Shur will start interviewing students for next summer’s internships.
The firm is hosting six interns this summer, including two first-year students in the summer diversity program it launched with two other law firms in 2009; it has since been expanded to employers in other industries including IDEXX, UNUM and L.L.Bean.
At the University of Maine School of Law, it’s now a graduation requirement to complete one component of experiential learning — whether through an externship working alongside seasoned attorneys and judges for academic credit or working at one of the school’s legal clinics.
“The faculty at Maine Law are very committed to making sure that our students are practice-ready when they leave,” says the school’s dean, Leigh Saufley.
Thinking back to her own internships long before she became a judge, Saufley says she gained a lot working in the District Attorney’s Office in York County and at a law enforcement unit.
“You take what you’re learning in the classroom, which seems very clear to you at the time, and then you go out into the world and learn how all of those concepts actually relate to human beings in their daily lives,” she says. “It’s a wonderful experience.”
Similar to law, accounting firms face greater competition for talent.
“Based on certain published reports, approximately 300,000 accountants have left the profession over the last few years,” says Julie Keim, a principal at BerryDunn who oversees the Portland-based firm’s internship program with direct oversight of audit interns and new hires.
“We have seen this with our recruiting efforts, noticing that enrollment at the college level in accounting programs is dwindling,” she says.
BerryDunn, led by CEO Sarah Belliveau, has grown from around 450 employees in 2019 to around 900 in 2023. The number of interns has also climbed, from 22 interns five years ago to around 60 this year.
Employees who started out as interns include Bethany Ashley, who was hired as a staff auditor in June 2021 after two summer stints at the firm. She did her first internship in 2020 ahead of her senior year at the University of Maine, then returned in 2021 before earning her MBA from the same school. She started full-time after passing her CPA exam.
Reflecting on her internships, the 25-year-old says she felt much more confident the second time around.
As a first-time intern, “I wanted to sound competent and smart, so I was a little hesitant to ask questions,” she says. “During the second one, I asked questions and learned so much more.”
Repeat interns like Ashley are common, and Keim says she expects that to continue as the firm encourages interns to try out different practice groups. If someone works with the tax team in the spring, for example, BerryDunn might suggest a summer rotation with the audit team.
Ashley, recently promoted to senior auditor in the commercial practice group, also helps with intern training and eventually hopes to take on more mentoring and teaching responsibilities.
“We understand they haven’t had real-world experience,” Ashley says, “so we aim to teach them as much as we can.”
It’s not just professional services firms that are expanding internship programs, but also businesses in the staff-challenged hospitality sector.
In Kennebunkport, the family-owned Nonantum Resort has gone from hosting one student intern in 2021 to seven this year, six of whom majored in subjects other than hospitality.
“We had one intern who was a business major with an interest in sustainability,” says Don Golini, Nonantum’s director of student employment programs. “That got us to thinking that maybe we were limiting ourselves by limiting the program only to hospitality majors. There are a lot of people in other disciplines who could benefit from learning a lot of soft business skills, and this would be the place to do it.”
Through a rotation program, interns are introduced to all parts of the business.
“One of the nice things about hospitality is that everything is interconnected,” Golini says. “If you’re working at the front desk and need to check guests in early, you need to check with housekeeping. If we have an event, you need to make sure that food and beverage is aware.”
Izaiah Stackpole, a 2023 Southern Maine Community College graduate interning at the resort this summer, hopes to work in events someday. The 22-year-old started his rotation on front-desk night duty and says he looks forward to working in other departments.
“Next week it’s housekeeping, and then I get two weeks in events — that’s what I really want to do,” he says. “Being in every department will help me know if I want to own a hotel one day.”
Former interns working at the resort include Marilyn Navarro, a former SMCC hospitality major on daytime front-desk duty.
While the 35-year-old has paused her studies due to her mother’s death, she looks forward to a long career in hospitality.
“I hope to secure something in food and beverage management until someday in the distant future my husband and I open our own pub-style restaurant … hopefully,” she says.