When Hannah Exner, a senior mechanical engineering major at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, accepted a summer internship offer last September, she expected to spend the summer of 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, working for Thermo King – a Trane Technologies brand. But when the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold last spring, Exner, who is from Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, began to worry about the possibility of her internship being canceled, as she saw happening to others. Thanks to longstanding relationships with UW-Platteville, many industry partners like Trane Technologies, made it a priority to honor these internship commitments, finding creative solutions to provide meaningful experiences.
Christina Franc, an Early Talent Program analyst for Trane Technologies, was instrumental in helping to develop these accommodations. When the pandemic hit, Franc and her team evaluated options for the internship program. After a lot of contingency planning and industry research, it became clear, Franc said, that students could not afford to have their internships cancelled.
“We couldn’t turn away from that,” said Franc, who worked with her team to transition and support more than 100 interns in virtual work. “After partnering with all the managers and leaders, we figured out how to make it happen. Our EPIC internship program has four pillars that we adhere to, and a foundational component is meaningful work. We wanted to make sure there was work for the interns that could be completed virtually and it would be a meaningful experience.”
In Exner’s case, they found that her original internship assignment wouldn’t be best suited for this virtual environment, so they re-assigned her to Trane Technologies corporate, working on the team led by Donna Bossman, director of engineering excellence.
“I had the opportunity as a leader to say, ‘how can we use some of these individuals?’ So a few of us put our heads together, looked at the candidates, and looked at our projects and company needs to figure out how we fit them in to match their interests and backgrounds,” said Bossman, who is also a member of UW-Platteville’s Women in STEM Advisory Board. “In Hannah’s case, one of the nice things was that since I have been involved with the Women in EMS program at UW-Platteville, and worked very deliberately on that partnership to get to know the faculty, programs and specific students, I already knew who Hannah was, and I knew she had an interest in sustainability. I helped put together work for Hannah that was probably 50% work for a project and strategic program, but also 50% of developing Hannah. It was knowing what she wanted to work on, and saying ‘let’s really think about your development plan, overlapping with what we need to accomplish with the company.’”
Exner’s primary responsibility throughout the internship was to assist with Trane Technologies’ Gigaton Challenge – its pledge to reduce its customers’ carbon footprint by one gigaton of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Exner worked with various business units to determine how to achieve this. This included assessing what they were currently doing, determining how to best track emissions and looking at what assumptions they were making with their calculations. Exner completed the internship entirely virtually, while remaining in Platteville, and was able to work the full 12 weeks, 40 hours each week.
Exner said that, while the internship experience may not have been what she initially expected, she is appreciative of new skills it allowed her to gain.
“At my internship last year, I always felt a little uncomfortable with virtual calls,” said Exner. “Now it’s more second nature. We really learned how to be effective virtually. One of our professional development sessions dealt with learning how to interact virtually with people, how to stay engaged, how to be professional on Zoom or Teams and how to present effectively virtually. They really made sure we were prepared for how to do that and how to work from home.”
According to Franc, the internship experience was successful in part because of the interns’ attitudes.
“I think it went way better than we could have expected,” said Franc. “The interns all took it so gracefully and pivoted and adapted to the change so well.”
As a testament to her positive experience, Exner recently accepted a full-time employment offer with Trane Technologies, following her graduation this December. She will work as a sustaining engineer, beginning a two-and-a-half-year rotational program in Trane Technologies’ Pueblo, Colorado location.
“I am thankful to still have had an internship; a lot of my friends had their internships canceled; that was really unfortunate,” said Exner. “Donna did such a great job of finding meaningful work. I had stuff going on all summer long. I could tell she really cared about me as a person, not just as an employee. She really cared about me succeeding for myself and not just for the company.”