EXCLUSIVE: The Evolution of Summer Internships

Learning and benefits go both ways for students and grocery industry employers
Lynn Petrak
Senior Editor
a woman smiling for the camera
SEG interns
Southeastern Grocers' summer team of interns gained hands-on experience, with some potentially returning for full-time work.

As summer winds down over the next few weeks, so do internships at many grocery and CPG businesses. Far from yesteryear tasks of fetching coffee and photocopying (remember that?), today’s interns are getting real-life experiences and building a solid career foundation.

That shift is affirmed by Dr. Russell J. Zwanka, director of the food marketing program and associate professor of food marketing at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, Mich. “The days of using an intern to post content on social sites, just job shadow, and not pay anything are over. Today's best internship programs fully immerse the interns into the company, with an end goal of offering a full-time job upon graduation. Many have quite competitive hourly rates,” he said.

[Read more: “Walmart Hails Largest Graduating Class of Associate-to-Driver Program”]

Internship programs are more structured, too, according to Zwanka. “We are seeing an evolution into some exceptionally well organized and planned internship program, and those are the companies our students want to join. These companies have scheduled onboarding, assign mentors, have constant check-ins and opportunities to understand the entire business, allow membership into ERG's, have set times to meet with top leaders, plan intern social activities, help with securing housing, have a final collaborative project that is presented to top leadership, and on,” he reported.

Internships benefit the company as much as the intern, given today’s competitive labor environment. “The companies who take the time to think through how to maximize the program are showing tremendous results in attracting talent.  It's all about attracting talent,” noted Zwanka.

Grocers with robust internship programs agree that it’s a mutually-beneficial model. “This pipeline of diverse, young leaders brings fresh perspectives and creative problem-solving to our business,” said Tony Sarsam, CEO of SpartanNash, which hired 105 interns from 38 universities and colleges from around the United States this summer.

Sarsam told Progressive Grocer that the internship program is carefully and purposefully managed. “It was important for us to recruit young professionals from various backgrounds and as a result we have 61% diversity. These interns will receive meaningful assignments and mentorship to help them grow – and hopefully stay – at SpartanNash,” he remarked.

At Southeastern Grocers, Chief People Officer Raymond Rhee said the company has focused on investing in future leaders.We are immensely proud of our highly sought-after internship program that offers valuable experiences across various teams at our Jacksonville Store Support Center, including accounting and finance, marketing and digital marketing, internal and external communications, HR, IT, e-commerce, merchandising, pharmacy, store operations, asset protection, real estate and more,” he shared. “Our paid 12-week program provides exceptional hands-on opportunities that directly contribute to our company's overall success and growth. By welcoming interns into our workforce, we not only contribute to their professional growth but also benefit from their unique ideas, fresh perspective and boundless energy.”

Rhee concurs that experience is essential to a successful internship, along with engaged mentorship. “To foster innovation and allow creativity to thrive, our program focuses on growing individuals holistically through personal and professional development opportunities, leadership networking, volunteer work and team-building activities,” he explained.  

As college students prepare to go back to school, many of these interns are doing one last project that sums up their journey and provides important insights to their employers. “At the close of the program, interns have the opportunity to present their strategic projects to executive leadership and we often provide continued employment opportunities for those who have demonstrated exceptional performance,” noted Rhee.

Even as they start their semester, it won’t be long before students are making plans for next summer. “In the WMU Food Marketing program, we're the only major that requires at least one internship to graduate. Other majors suggest it, but we want to ensure all our students have secured and completed at least one. Most complete two to three before graduating,” said Zwanka.

Grand Rapids, Mich.-based SpartanNash operates two complementary business segments – food wholesale and grocery retail. Its global supply chain network serves wholesale customers that include independent and chain grocers, national retail brands, e-commerce platforms, and U.S. military commissaries and exchanges. On the retail side, SpartanNash operates over 140 brick-and-mortar grocery stores under various banner names. The company is No. 41 on The PG 100, Progressive Grocer’s 2023 list of the top food and consumables retailers in North America. Jacksonville, Fla.-based Southeastern Grocers is one of the largest conventional supermarket companies in the United States, with more than 420 grocery stores, approximately 180 liquor stores and more than 230 in-store pharmacies serving communities throughout Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Mississippi. The company is No. 44 on The PG 100.

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