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Downtown companies sell ‘the D’ to summer interns

Karen Dybis
Special to The Detroit News

Steven Morrow is living a summer intern’s dream: Now in his fourth year at Quicken Loans, the University of Michigan graduate spends his days in the underwriting department and his nights checking out food trucks, going to concerts and watching outdoor movies in Detroit’s hottest spots.

The Detroit resident is not only happy about the connections he’s making at his future employer — Morrow accepted a full-time job at Quicken Loans beginning next month — but also feels like his internship class is contributing to the city’s vibrant scene.

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I’ve always wanted to make where I grew up a better place,” Morrow said. “Working here, I’ve seen a bigger picture and a vision for the city. There’s so many great things going on, and I’m a part of it.”

That commitment — both to the city and to its business growth — is among the top reasons why Metro Detroit companies large and small are investing heavily in their summer internship programs. Interns are gaining work experience and an appreciation for the “live, work, play” mantra that Detroit is working to foster.

Detroit-based employers, including DTE Energy, Quicken Loans and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, bring in more than 3,000 interns from late May through early September. To retain top young talent, these firms are boosting their investment in on-the-job training as well as tourism, after-work activities and over-the-top experiences, including scavenger hunts, extensive tours and volleyball tournaments.

Blue Cross has expanded its internship program 15-20 percent annually over the past five years, said Jody Jones, who is a manager for the company’s program. This year, Blue Cross has about 175 interns from more than 30 schools in every area of the organization, from audit to marketing to information technology.

Its internship program is key to finding people for otherwise hard-to-fill positions, such as actuaries who assess business risk. The Blues works closely with these interns throughout their college careers in hopes of snatching them away from other health care organizations, Jones said.

“We give them real work to do; they receive real projects to work on so when they go back into the classroom they have this great experience to share,” she said. That’s what has helped the company land some highly sought-after hires, Jones said.

Quicken Loans received around 17,000 applications for its internship program, which hired around 1,100 summer interns this year, said Michelle Salvatore, the company’s vice president of recruiting. These interns represent more than 200 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Syracuse and, closer to home, the University of Michigan.

Word of mouth

“We don’t have to advertise this program; it’s all word of mouth,” Salvatore said. “It helps our company by bringing in a great talent pool. We look at it as also helping revitalize Detroit. These are folks that we know really want to be in an urban core. They want to work here. They want to play here. They want to explore.”

Quicken Loans provides a host of benefits to its participants, including subsidized housing for out-of-state students, guaranteed parking and shuttle buses to and from these spots as well as regular social events through programs such as After 5. Interns are treated to special events, whether it is a pass for the rides at Detroit River Days, an insider’s view of Comerica Park or a citywide scavenger hunt.

Having this millennial mass has unexpected benefits as well, Salvatore said. Quicken Loans observes where the interns tend to congregate and what they enjoy doing downtown.

That gives the company insights on what else needs to be done to make Detroit a desirable place for this age group, she added.

“We ask them for constant feedback. We know this is a fresh set of eyes and that they have new ideas. They know what they want and where they want to be,” Salvatore said.

Although enthusiastic about Detroit and its future, Salvatore said she spends a portion of her time helping Quicken Loans’ potential interns talk their parents into believing in the city. That is why over time the company has developed what it calls “Show and Tell” day, when interns take their parents to work for the day.

Quicken Loans takes these groups on office tours, provides them with city excursions and sets up special events to woo every family member.

The internship boom has benefited retailers, restaurants and event companies around the city. For example, Kerry Doman founded After 5 as a website for Detroit’s young professionals to find one another and activities. Now, her company’s program for interns will work with more than 3,000 interns from 40 companies. By comparison, when she started her business five years ago, she had about 400 interns involved.

The After 5 intern program hosts a summer kickoff party, volleyball tournaments, downtown restaurant crawls and, most importantly, Dinner with Detroit Executives, which lets these students rub shoulders with some of the city’s biggest high rollers.

“The No. 1 feedback we receive from interns, whether they’re coming from a small company or a big company, is that they love meeting other interns. It broadens their horizons to understand what’s happening here,” Doman said.

A reason to stay

“They want to know that their peers are here, that there is a lifestyle here and that there’s a reason to stay here.”

Detroit Experience Factory over the summer months will take more than 1,000 interns on bus and walking tours of the city, said Jon Chezick, director of experiences for the Detroit-based nonprofit organization. DXF docents, all of whom live in Detroit, have given tours to more 30,000 people in the past three years, he added.

The goal, Chezick said, is not only to show them major tourist destinations such as the RiverWalk, Indian Village and Eastern Market, but also to give them “a street-level view,” especially on their walking tours. When the interns are done, they have seen everything from high-end living in Capitol Park’s The Albert, to where they can take their dry cleaning, to the hottest bakeries for sea salt chocolate chip cookies.

“We try to connect interns with the people, places and projects that are making Detroit a great place,” Chezick said.

“You have to sell people not only on the specific job they’re here to do, but also on living, working and engaging with Detroit. … We’re in this to attract and retain talent as well as spread our love for the city of Detroit.”

Jones of Blue Cross said Detroit’s commitment to a “work hard, play hard” internship experience especially attracts millennials who are seeking jobs that take their social concerns into consideration.

For example, the Blues connects its interns with Recycle Here, a city recycling program, and its school-center Green Living Science subsidiary and its Holden Street Art Park. Interns can volunteer at these projects, gain experience and create ties that hopefully last throughout their career.

“It helps give them a bigger view of Detroit outside of their desks,” Jones said. “We want to help them build friendships and a professional network. That is what will hold them in the city; these kinds of experiences build memories. … Part of the city’s turnaround rests on their shoulders.”

That’s a sentiment not lost on Morrow.

“I’m just glad to be a part of what’s going on down here because in a few years everyone’s going to wish they were here,” Morrow said.