Program Helps Launch Next Generation of Powder Coating Professionals

Posted on Tuesday, September 25, 2018


What will our workforce look like in the future? More and more manufacturers are asking this question as they search for new employees from an aging, slower growing, and often less experienced labor pool. After considering how to shape its own next generation of workers, Texas-based powder coating manufacturer IFS Coatings chose a proactive approach: create an innovative internship program.

A New Idea Arises

IFS Coatings, a family-owned and privately held company, was founded in 1999. Many of its original employees are still with the company and have moved into leadership roles as IFS expanded. Unfortunately, the company found it increasingly difficult to fill open positions with experienced and skilled employees who shared the company’s mission and values.

“We are very mission and values driven and have a strong company culture,” says IFS Coatings Owner Stephen Kawaja. “Sustaining our culture, which values integrity, excellence, and being adaptable, accountable, and passionate is immensely important to us as we continue to grow. About five years ago, we started seeking alternative ways to build our team and maintain our culture.”

As part of the process, Kawaja and Vice President of Human Resources Georgie Ing evaluated the company’s best performers and discovered a pattern. The most successful employees had built up a deep understanding of the powder coating business and company culture by working in multiple departments at IFS. As a result, experience in different areas of the company is at the heart of IFS’s program, called SOAR (Sales, Operations and Research), to inspire interns to achieve great heights

An Eagle-Eyed Look at the Business

“We are very mission and values driven and have a strong company culture,” says IFS Coatings Owner Stephen Kawaja.

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Two types of SOAR internships are offered as part of a paid 40-hour-a-week program. The first internship is a shorter six-week program designed for college students, usually in their junior or senior year, as well as for existing employees who want to further their career. The next level internship is a year-long graduate program for interns who showed promise in the initial program. The start time of both programs is flexible, but once they begin, interns must follow a structured schedule.

All interns rotate through the company and are assigned deliverables in each area from manufacturing and research to accounting, customer service and sales. During the rotations, interns acquire an overview of the business and

an appreciation of how every department contributes to the powder coating business. Interns work on real projects and are encouraged to develop their own solutions. “We ask them, ‘How would you tackle this problem we’re facing?’” says Kawaja. “We’re not using interns as manual labor. We see this as an opportunity to train and challenge them to use their training to solve real-life problems.”

At the end of the six-week program, interns present reports outlining everything they’ve done and learned and how they plan to grow in the future. The report helps to shape the 12-month program during which interns continue to work alongside team members throughout the company and gain deeper insight into different business operations. “The six-week internship gives us a chance to get to know the interns and their strengths, weaknesses and goals,” Ing explains. “Then we can customize their graduate program to better meet both the individual’s and company’s needs.”

Charting the Route to Success

Years of advanced planning and development paved the SOAR program’s path to success. In the beginning, Ing spent week after week moving throughout the company discussing what she hoped the program would achieve, how it would work, and each department’s role and planned projects. “By investing a lot of time upfront, we alleviated potential problems,” says Ing. “We spent two years working to formulate and refine the program. There was a lot of documentation. Everything was thoroughly outlined, and I think this preparation made the whole job easier.”

Clear expectations and communication remain a cornerstone of the program. “My advice is to make sure you know who you are before bringing in any interns,” Kawaja recommends. “If you’re clear about your mission and what you value, others will find it easier to teach. Without consistent values across the board, you’re just going to confuse participants.”

Finding Top-Flight Interns

Once the program was developed, IFS advertised the internship at many local colleges and universities and promoted it internally at the company. Ing attended countless career days throughout the region to establish the type of candidates each college attracted. “At first, we had some challenges in determining which universities we wanted to work with and which applicants best fit our program,” says Ing.

Today, Ing markets the program at several universities, but partners with two that have consistently provided the strongest intern candidates. In addition, the company increases program awareness and recruits potential interns through the IFS website, internal newsletters, and companywide meetings.

In choosing interns, IFS uses a selective process that includes phone and onsite interviews to evaluate the candidate’s skill set and performance in academics and previous job experiences. The program mainly attracts technical engineers open to working in sales, operations and research, but also recruits business majors looking to develop a more technical background. “I was surprised by the students’ misconceptions about sales jobs,” says Kawaja. “We’ve found it much easier to attract technical candidates than people excited about sales opportunities.”

Program Benefits Take Flight

So far, the SOAR program has been an unqualified triumph. During the program’s two years of informal development and three years of more formal structure, IFS has had fifteen graduates successfully move into full-time jobs. Some interns, still attending local universities, continue to work at the company part-time during the school year. This summer, five more interns are employed by the company

In some ways, the internship acts as a trial period during which the intern can determine if the company is the right fit for them and the company can determine if the intern is the right fit for the company. The intern is armed with the background, technical and industry knowledge, as well as the problem-solving skills needed to succeed at the company. “We find that they tend to know how to better navigate and perform in the company than someone who hasn’t had this experience,” says Ing.

A supply chain management major at Duquesne University, Kyle Toczek spent his summer as a SOAR intern.

An unexpected benefit of the program is the sense of pride experienced by the managers and mentors that are chosen to guide and teach the interns. IFS senior staff feel the satisfaction of passing along their experience to the next generation and for younger mentors, teaching interns reinforces their skills and the value placed on their work. Kawaja adds, “It’s great to be able to train interns on our processes and values to help future employees build a successful long-term career.”

An Intern’s Uplifting Experience

A supply chain management major at Duquesne University, Kyle Toczek spent his summer as a SOAR intern. Despite having relatives employed in the business, Toczek confesses he didn’t know much about powder coating and its career opportunities before he started the program at IFS. “This is an industry that you can’t really understand until you get hands-on experience working alongside the products,” he explains. “This summer I’m learning how to color match and understand the powder coating language. Recognizing why we do things the way we do makes the job more meaningful.”

Company mission and the ability to make a positive contribution are particularly important to the millennials that will make up the next wave of employees. “Knowing I’m part of an industry providing an eco-friendly service — that I am helping to make the world a better place one piece at a time — is important to me,” says Toczek. “My generation will pursue things and work harder for companies that they truly believe in. Company mission is a key factor for us.”

The approach to leadership and intrinsic values also make a difference on a day-to-day basis. Toczek says he appreciates the clear expectations, knowledge sharing, and high level of responsibility that are integral to the program at IFS. “They train you properly and teach you what you need to know and do. Then they let you do it without micromanaging you,” he explains. “People believe in you, and that trust empowers you as an employee.”

For Toczek, the company’s atmosphere and intern development philosophy has been nearly as important as the learning opportunities. “The best thing about being in the program is that you have an opportunity to see what the future can hold,” he says. “It’s great to know that IFS is rooting for me. They actually care about me and what I learn and want me to succeed. And I feel great knowing that what I’m doing helps the company. I can definitely envision a future career in powder coating and at IFS.”

Catherine Flynn is a contributing writer of Powder Coated Tough magazine and principal of Flynn Ink