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Bill Stanczykiewicz - 10/5/2014
Source: http://indystar.com

A familiar workforce strategy is now being offered to high school students while addressing a crucial need in the labor market.

Internships are not just for college students anymore. In Noblesville, high school principal Jeff Bryant said one-third of last year’s senior class earned school credit by serving an internship during the school day with a local business.

“We’re changing the idea that we’re just graduating students,” Bryant said. “Instead, we’ve given students the opportunity through an internship program to take what they have learned here at Noblesville High School and transfer and apply those lessons in the workforce.”

Bryant estimated that 180 seniors interned with 35 companies during the most recent school year. Students served their internship either 90 minutes each day or for three hours every other day. While serving an internship, students took an online course teaching them about workplace skills and the labor market while earning elective credit toward any of Indiana’s high school diploma types.

Importantly, the internship program imposes no financial cost on the school district. Bryant reassigned a teacher who already is on the payroll, Susie Wiersema, and transitioned her out of the classroom and into the community to identify internships, teach the online course and oversee student participation.

“The students learn about communication, working on a team, thinking critically,” Wiersema stated. “I could try to teach that to them in the classroom, but there is no way I could impact them in the same way the employers do out in the community.”

One of those employers is Gaylor Electric, a national electrical contractor. Executive Vice President Chuck Goodrich acknowledged that companies are assisting themselves while also helping students.

“Our industry is going to be 2 million folks short by 2017,” Goodrich said. “We’re going to need a lot more skilled people to get into our industry. Attracting the right talent to our company is a top priority.”

Goodrich added that some students use their internship to launch a lifelong career. “Our interns can come out of high school, go into an apprenticeship program, go right to work, further their education in trade school, earn an associate’s degree and continue on. And it’s all paid for by us,” he said.

Noblesville alum Rebecca Voegele, who now is studying at IUPUI to be a nurse, said her high school internship at Riverview Hospital confirmed her career choice.

“I want to pursue a career in nursing, and I wanted to get my foot in the door in a hospital and see what everyone does,” Voegele said. “You get to go out in the workforce and see how everyone works together.”

Voegele described how some of her classmates benefitted from internships in a different way. “Some students decide after their internship that this is not what they want to do, and they figure that out before they get to college,” she said. “That also helps parents so they’re not paying thousands and thousands of dollars for something their kids decide they’re not interested in anymore.”

According to the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, 72 percent of employers cite “filling our workforce” among their top challenges, while 39 percent have unfilled job openings due to unqualified job candidates. The U.S. Department of Education endorses internships for high school students as one strategy for closing this gap.

“Educators should work to provide the widest possible array of demanding educational alternatives for all students (including) employment and internships off campus,” the Department of Ed advised. “Opportunities for interning can remind students of the relationship between their studies and their future after graduation. These alternatives can genuinely help students develop a sense of purpose about their lives.”

In Noblesville, Wiersema implemented this collaborative strategy by meeting employers through local business and economic development groups. Bryant said these partnerships are essential to maximize student success.

“We’ve made the commitment to not be an island by ourselves,” Bryant said. “Sometimes in education we have a tendency to work by ourselves within the walls of our schools. We’ve made a commitment to go out into the community and also be a resource to the community by sending our students (into internships).”

Stanczykiewicz is president and CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. He can be reached at iyi@iyi.org and followed @_billstan