Supplier Profile: A True Learner’s Permit

ZF Chassis Systems’ unique internship program produces multi-talented young professionals

The dated image of the coffee-fetching, errand-running college intern has been changing for years, but at ZF Chassis Systems in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, that stereotype has been upended. Management has created a whole new make and model of intern.

ZF Chassis interns learn valuable work skills that put them ahead of the curve. Photo by Christine Prichard

Thanks to an innovative plan by plant manager Brad Newman, the Tier 1 supplier for Mercedes developed an Intern and Young Professional program (IYP) that develops personal accountability and responsibility in ways most undergrads don’t encounter until after years on a “real” job.

“I don’t know of a professional position that we fill from the outside,” Newman says. “If an intern fits what we need, 100 percent of the time they will get the job. And if we don’t have something for them, our sister plants want them. We have two interns who went to Greenville, South Carolina to work and have been very successful there. We’re not only improving our talent base locally, but filling positions in other plants with known quantities. Anyone who gets through this program successfully, I will reach out to my peers and put my stamp of approval on them.” With servant leadership as a guiding principle, when Newman joined ZF Chassis as a plant manager, his first step was to evaluate.

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“When I came here as a plant manager, one thing I noticed was there was no young talent in plant,” Newman says. “That was a hole that needed to be filled.” Newman’s assessment came at a time when ZF was busy with crucial projects, but still he went to key staff and told them he wanted each of them to get an intern. The response across the board was that in a busy launch time, it wasn’t worth the effort to take time away from normal duties to train an intern. Newman told them to get interns anyway.

“We started out with a small number, bringing them on by department as we could find them,” he says. “Once we got to a critical mass of six or eight, it gave me the opportunity to do what we try to across the plant — making everything cross-functional. The goal is for them to be exceptional in their positions, but I want them to be exceptional cross-functionally and as a team.”

That directive generated a camaraderie and team atmosphere among interns, which has helped develop young talent, as well as being a force for good with community and charitable projects. Every five or six weeks, the interns make a presentation to staff that, to an outsider, would seem as if they were recounting their annual accomplishments. In fact, they do more in the span of a few weeks at ZF than many would do over a 52-week period.

As the interns work together, holding one another accountable, they have upped the ante on vetting potential candidates for the program. At ZF, functional leaders and their teams interview interns who want to join the company, but the IYPs also examine them to ensure a good fit with the team and company culture.

“After that, we sit down as a group and the IYPs discuss the pros and cons of each,” Newman says. “The functional manager decides, but if they liked candidate A and Candidate B was chosen, the team understands the cons they listed are their ‘to do’ for that intern when they arrive. They know it’s their job to make sure the individual is successful and realize that person’s challenges and weaknesses when they come in.”

Brad Newman with one of ZF’s interns, Payton Skeens. Photo by Christine Prichard

Payton Skeens, an account management intern for sales and student at the University of Alabama, joined the team in January 2018. She had heard about ZF’s reputation as a company from a professor. Not knowing about the award-winning IYP program, becoming part of such a team was an eye-widening experience for Skeens, who is scheduled to graduate in operations management in May 2020. Now, she’s an old pro, interfacing with customer service at Mercedes-Benz, inputting prices, tracking overtime, creating downtime reports and preparing quotes for test parts. And that’s just part of her regular work schedule.

In addition, ZF interns are active in community outreach and community service, along with the   approximately 18 other young people on the team, a fluctuating number depending on the time of year. Most students work part time when they’re in school, then go fulltime in summer.

“We’re a B2B company, so our IYP group does a lot to spread the company name because a lot of people haven’t heard of us,” Skeens says. “If a member of IYP has an idea for a service project, we talk about it as a group. We want to be sure we don’t get into something we aren’t going to do our best at. We want to go above expectation on every project we do.”

Those efforts include adopting a middle school and a high school, monthly soup kitchen volunteering, quarterly Habitat for Humanity build projects, working with the elderly and more. Every intern and young professional in the organization is expected to contribute.

“One of the group’s functions is to be sure we are engaged in the community,” Skeens says. “Our other goal is to develop each other professionally and personally. After starting our internship, we have the opportunity to work until we graduate. When we graduate, there’s a lot of opportunity to work here or another other location. The goal is to be sure [we are] prepared to go work full time.”

According to Skeens, 60 percent of interns have been hired by ZF, while others have moved on with another automotive supplier or to attend graduate school.

“This program opens up a world of opportunity,” says Skeens. “This is a group made up of fine individuals.

Payton Skeens. Photo by Christine Prichard

One thing I’ve learned that is invaluable is how to be a leader among leaders. Everyone has ideas and is a leader in one way. You have to find a way to work where everyone is heard.”

A big part of their role is holding one another accountable. IYP participants meet weekly, access information through shared folders, document attendance, and keep in contact through Group Me on their phones.

Skeens says many students choose to co-op, which delays their graduation, but it does give them valuable work experience. By joining ZF, she is gaining experience working in a global company with employees from all over the world while staying on track for graduation.

“My major offers co-op opportunities, but the difference for me is I’ll have two and a half years work experience, and I don’t have to delay graduation,” she says.

ZF intern Payton Skeens presented at an automotive conference this spring with other industry professionals. Photo by Joe DeSciose

“Through this specific program, you really learn a work, school, life balance. You’re going to class and work and trying to fit everything in. You learn time management skills, and you’re really prepared after interning here. We are part of the culture of ZF.”

Newman finds it hard to contain his pride in the success of the program. “I would like to meet an internship program more effective than this one,” Newman says. “I’ve run out of ways to make them more effective. I have a high level of expectation, but they exceed it every time. It’s incredible what this group has done developing their own processes with onboarding new interns and managing themselves. If someone is not pulling their weight, the group figures out how to help them do that. It’s a self-managed organization that has accountability and is responsible for updating staff about the responsibility they have been given.”

While the internship breakthrough is Newman’s brainchild, he wants to see other firms follow the same model to the benefit of their operations. Interns can be valuable to a company and a community.

“I don’t take pride of authorship over this program,” he says. “I appreciate the opportunity to share this idea and to be in a position that I can positively impact so many folks. Every decision I make, I first consider what’s best for the team for the long haul, rather than what’s best for me. Instead of saying ‘I’m Brad, and 450 people work for me,’ I say I work for 450 people. I’ve read a lot of leadership books and studied a lot of great leadership. It all comes back to leading and being humble.”


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