John Kermicle and Andy Montgomery had a problem. The COVID-19 pandemic was about to put the old kibosh on a long-standing corporate student internship program. Yet it was a program both felt should continue.
“We’ve had an internship program for 35 years at AgriGold,” Kermicle says. “Just to scrap it? That, for us, was just not an option.”
In part, the loss of the extra help for managing returns, placing signage in the field and a host of other tasks that could be left behind if there were no internships were all concerns. In addition, the company sees other value in its internship program.
Kermicle is brand manager for AgriGold, a division of AgReliant Genetics. Montgomery is brand manager for LG Seeds, another division of the company.
Adds Montgomery: “The easiest thing to do would be to cancel our internship program, but we never considered that. Half of the internship is an opportunity for us to give back to the community, but the other half is to identify and develop potential future employees.”
The internships are a key part of introducing agriculture to college students who might otherwise bypass the industry. Yet seed companies are looking for people every year, and internships are a key part of evaluation and development.
In fact, for 2020, the two brands will have 81 interns, and 49 Rising Star Partners (internships and training for young people who want to become dealers). The program runs from May 18 through Aug. 7, and it’s continuing this year, but the program looks a lot different for 2020.
Changed internship approach
If the internship program was going to happen for 2020, many things would change, and these changes had to be initiated in very short order. The company brings in about 120 interns a year across the trade region for both brands. At AgriGold, the first three days of that internship involve a comprehensive training program, where all interns are brought together.
“We had to recalibrate that,” Kermicle says. “We held a virtual half-day orientation. Then we broke into small 10-person teams in different regions.” That half-day of training did involve all interns in the 2020 program, but all were reporting in remotely.
The small-group work, however, is done in each sales region for those interns, so they do get some quality time with knowledgeable folks from AgriGold who can share insights. And Kermicle says the internship experience is evolving; this is no longer a job of just posting signs around the region. “We’ve been working the last few years to evolve the program and give interns a well-rounded agronomy and sales opportunity,” he says.
He notes that college students love to do some agronomy, and they’ll have that chance. They’ll also get sales experience — but that’s changing, too.
“We have a safety talk about driving, but now we’re also talking about how to handle coronavirus,” Kermicle says. “That means wearing a mask, practicing social distancing and scheduling appointments with farmers. We want to do our jobs responsibly. We don’t want to pull into the yard if the customer is sensitive about coronavirus.”
Montgomery notes LG Seeds doesn’t have as many interns as AgriGold, and it covers a larger geographic area. But LG Seeds is breaking into smaller teams this summer, too. Now LG Seeds interns will be separated into teams, and they’ll have an opportunity in those small groups to engage different parts of the company’s business.
“We might have three or four on a project with production, another two or three with research,” Montgomery says, “rather than have them in one larger group.”
It’s a small loss for interns who loved getting together with other students in the program. Montgomery himself was an intern with AgriGold in his college days.
Adjustments for virtual world
For Kermicle and Montgomery the adjustment may be harder than for the student interns. The use of virtual meeting tools is also changing the way information is provided. They acknowledge that even for their employees, the experience is changing.
What was a three-day event took place in a single morning over Microsoft Teams. For LG Seeds, a day’s worth of material was compressed into a morning. The group is, in fact, getting more efficient, and the students are used to using these tools every day.
“We’ve worried more about this today than they have,” Montgomery says. “I think we’ll learn as much or more out of these interns than any class of interns we’ve ever had. And I challenged them with that [in the orientation call]. They can blaze a path for future interns.”
The good news is that AgReliant didn’t walk away from its internship program just because of a pandemic. The company pivoted, engaged new remote approaches. It may, in fact, have a better internship program than in the past, allowing students to engage with company personnel, and farmers, in new ways.
When this pandemic passes — at least at AgReliant — the internship program may never be the same.