“Someday they will run our businesses, lead our nation, make discoveries and change our world. But first, they will practice within these walls.”
Those words, written about youth and on display at the Junior Achievement Finance Park in Landover, Md., struck a chord in Pentagon Federal Credit Union (PenFed) President/CEO James Schenck. That chord continues to reverberate in the halls of the $20 billion asset credit union in Alexandria, Va.
“That quote, combined with the high-energy students I saw during presentations to MBA students at Georgetown and Hampton universities, inspired me to make sure we’re in a position to attract the best and brightest students,” Schenck says. “We want PenFed and the credit union system to be on the radar for students looking for internships, and on the radar for students looking for their first jobs out of college.”
PenFed’s program, launched this summer, has 24 interns from around the country. True to Schenck’s vision, it aims to bring fresh eyes into the not-for-profit, member-owned financial services landscape.
“An organization is only as good as the people in it,” Schenck says, “which led us to the question: How do we attract the best and brightest right out of college?”
High-performing students can choose any number of paths, he says, and PenFed set out to create an environment that attracts them with a “wow” moment and gives them an in-depth, top-level look at the credit union movement.
“This isn’t working in the mailroom or filing papers,” Schenck says. “These students are getting direct exposure to our credit union alongside senior executives. Whether it’s meetings, briefings, or planning sessions, these interns are literally at the table—they’re infused in all of our operations at the highest level.”
PenFed CU’s James Schenck
on the organization's dynamic internship program
Rocky Mitchell, PenFed’s executive vice president of global fixed assets, says culture is an integral part of any organization, and PenFed has a member-focused culture that emphasizes people helping people and uncompromising ethics.
“Making this part of our core ethos gives us a competitive advantage in a world where college graduates have high expectations of both themselves and the organizations they work for,” he says.
Mitchell sees the exchange of ideas between younger college students and high-level executives as a breath of fresh air that benefits both parties.
“If you’re only having internal conversations about which way to go, you’re going to become stale very quickly,” he says. “These students bring with them experiences, opinions, and ideas that we wouldn’t even know to think about. They bring in energy. They challenge the conventional ways we think about things. That is key to successful evolution.”
Interns had various levels of knowledge about the credit union difference. To hammer the point home, PenFed’s first presentation focused on credit unions’ not-for-profit, cooperative structure.
“From the second I arrived, it was apparent that the member experience is the No. 1 priority,” says Lars Okeson, a rising sophomore from James Madison University who is interning in the mortgage department. “This is the first real job I’ve had, and I feel it’s given me a great foundation for the future through real-world work experience.”
Intern Crystal Eley, a rising sophomore at Hampton University who is a human resource intern, is a credit union member. Already aware of the credit union difference, she says she has learned the finer points of ensuring members receive the best service possible.
“PenFed is into helping people in any way it can, and the credit union certainly wants every member who interacts with us to walk away satisfied,” she says.
Tiffany Kim, a dual information technology (IT)/finance major at the University of Virginia, is interning in the IT department, but has career goals that include mergers and acquisitions.
“I’ve been given some big responsibilities in IT, including tracking project budgets,” she says. “It feels good to be given that amount of trust as an intern.”
When she asked about opportunities to learn about mergers and acquisitions, she was allowed to attend meetings related to that field. Kim was so impressed with PenFed’s member-first mentality that she recently became one of its newest members.
In addition to regular assignments, the interns as a group hear directly from PenFed’s leadership during weekly “learning lunches.” A recent luncheon featured Chief Operating Officer Tammy Darvish explaining PenFed’s member service and marketing strategies.
Darvish shared how PenFed doesn’t want members merely to be satisfied. It wants members to view the credit union as an advocate for their financial well-being.
Schenck and PenFed believe in the membership and career potential of the credit union system’s most important population: millennials. Millennials currently outnumber baby boomers and stand to inherit $30 trillion from their parents.
While interns generally are assigned to specific areas, PenFed knows that flexibility is important to millennials, and accommodates them when possible. These efforts include a modernized workspace with low-wall cubicles and plenty of natural light, free parking, and onsite employee perks such as a café and fitness center.
Schenck is a familiar face among the halls of PenFed’s headquarters, where you often see him greeting employees with a high-five or a fist bump more often than a handshake.
PenFed hopes to expand its paid internship program from the current 24 spots and to create more competition for participation. It plans exit interviews to assess potential tweaks to the program.
Schenck hopes the students will have a great experience and share it with their friends.
“By word of mouth we’ll have more of the best and brightest looking for a place here,” he says. “As we grow the program and show more young people the credit union difference, it’s not an exaggeration to say that soon these students will be the next generation of credit union leaders.”