Jan 15 2008

Learning by Leaving

Learning by Leaving

Chris Rother

IT internship programs are a best-of-both-worlds proposition. A robust program provides students with life lessons and helps them hone tech skills in a real-world environment. Added pluses include an improved résumé and money earned. Business partners get benefits, too, as they hire employees with some real-world experience. The most enthusiastic partners tap into the program to grow their own technology departments.

Jefferson County (Ky.) School District’s IT internship program is the brainchild of IT Internship Coordinator Scott Horan. It began in 1990 when Horan, who supplemented his teaching income as the owner of a computer store, realized that his best students made great employees. He hired them for computer repair and networking jobs. He also noticed they brought their professional experience back into the computer program at Eastern High School. He began filling slots at other local businesses with students from the school.

Before long, student demand for jobs outstripped needs. In 1999, working with Greater Louisville Inc. and School-to-Career Business Liaison Linda Neal, the team upgraded the program to a district effort. They created mailings and made countless presentations to Chamber of Commerce members. The program continued to grow.

Today, it’s structured around a 10-week IT internship during students’ junior or senior year. But the work begins much earlier. Students prepare by enrolling in three-year tech tracks, such as geographic information systems, computer repair or networking, and can complete industry-standard certifications, such as A+, Network+ and IC3.

The next step is a one-day seminar in soft skills: business ethics, communication, professional dress and interviewing techniques. The crash course culminates in mock interviews with human resources representatives from local businesses. The matchmaking begins in earnest at a giant job fair where up to 150 students vie for internships with up to 30 local employers. Last summer, the district placed 52 students from 10 high schools with local businesses. Horan aims for a level playing field by encouraging all employers to pay students $8 per hour. Students and companies can part ways at the end of the summer, but about half continue the arrangement.

Horan says that although programs like Louisville’s are best suited to large urban areas with scores of IT jobs, it is possible to succeed with a small, school-based program. Take Naperville, Ill. For four years, Central High School has tapped into A+ certified students as a source of economical and knowledgeable IT interns. With one adult, the interns maintain the high school’s 800 computers.

The program begins in the CompTIA A+ class. “It’s like a nine-month interview process,” says Brett Thompson, technology integration specialist. At the end of the school year, Thompson weeds the field to about six students who have demonstrated the maturity to handle access to sensitive student data and building keys. After district interviews, three candidates earn nine-month positions as IT interns, along with academic credit and $8 to $9 per hour for 15 to 20 hours a week.

“The school gets fantastic labor at a bargain rate, and kids experience the real-life pressures of an IT job,” Thompson concludes.

Not Just for Students

While a high percentage of school internships focus on getting students experience, at least one program focuses on both students and teachers. The Student Teacher Internship Program, based in Washington, D.C., places high school students and teachers from high schools and middle schools in research laboratories at the National Institutes of Health. After almost 20 years, the program has grown to include 22 students and 10 teachers from Maryland’s Montgomery County Public School system.

The program has certainly met its goal of boosting student interest in science. More than seven of 10 interns return to the National Institutes of Health to work after the program ends, and 86 percent of graduates say they are currently employed in a science-related field.

Outcomes Count

Pioneers parlay internships into dream jobs. Still in their 20s, some of the first graduates of the Jefferson County (Ky.) IT Internship program followed their early success by: ● Serving as CIO of a 600-employee telecommunication business; ● Collaborating with director Steven Spielberg; ● Working with the Hubble telescope image retrieval team.

More On