Connecting state and local government leaders
Though many young people are ignorant about jobs in the public sector, internships can help educate them and draw them into the workforce.
Periodically, Tania Williams, the human resources manager of the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada, visits high schools to tell students about the job opportunities in the commission. “Nobody has a clue about what we do,” she says. “We provide public transit, regional planning and traffic management throughout Southern Nevada, and students will say, ‘I don’t want to drive a bus for a living.’”
Williams’ frustration with the widespread ignorance about public sector job opportunities is common. Similarly, in Johnson County, Kansas, innovation analyst Grace Hanne devoted vacation time to volunteering in a career-centered school during the Covid pandemic. “I wanted to know what the kids knew about the public sector path,” she says. “They knew nothing—only that there were jobs for police, fire and office work.”
This lack of knowledge about job options in the public sector was particularly worrisome to Hanne, because she was aware of aggressive overtures from private sector firms that were recruiting from the same labor pool. “I thought we should be up there,” she says. “It’s time to do a road show about what Johnson County has to offer.”
We’ve written a number of columns for Route Fifty about workforce shortages in the public sector, and it’s clear to us that Hanne is absolutely right. If a city, county or state is going to compete against the corporate world for the future workforce, they’re going to have to step up their game.
High School Internship Programs
One of the most promising vehicles for attracting young employees are internship or other career-oriented programs that introduce students to a professional environment, the development of work skills and the multiple career options that they may not know exist.
The idea of providing work-based learning experiences in high school is not new, but interest from the public and private sectors has expanded in recent years as both have been grappling with intense workforce shortages. Opportunities in different parts of the country depend on state funding, foundation support, school district receptivity and the push of individual leaders to create programs that work.
After a regional landscape analysis in 2017, the Kauffman Foundation launched its Real World Learning initiative in 2019, providing Kansas City area schools, business and community organizations with ways to connect with each other and create work-focused learning experiences for students. In summer 2022, a companion program was created that provides five-week summer internships with businesses, nonprofits and the public sector.
Using work-based learning principles developed by the Center for Advanced Professional Studies, Real World Learning has been implemented in 31 school districts. Currently 22% of high school students in the Kansas City metro area, which includes both Missouri and Kansas, have achieved what the program calls a “market-value asset”—skills that are designed to create a more seamless transition from school to college or the workplace.
In addition to internship opportunities, both during the school year and in the summer, students can also work on issues that show them how the world outside of high school works. For example, last summer a group of students worked together tapping local views on the merits of establishing a downtown entertainment district in the small city of Kearney, Missouri.
Interest in participating in Real World Learning’s various programs has grown in the public sector. “Talent shortages that affect your daily life start to have an impact,” says Bill Nicely, educator-in-residence at Real World Learning. “Cities and counties now have a new incentive to engage.”
Kansas City Mayor Quinton Lucas has bought in to this approach and plans to provide 150 summer internships in 2023 up from 38 in 2022.
It Matters Where You Live
Many in the public sector are enthusiastic about the use of internship programs that directly involve young people in city, county and regional government work. In Nevada, the Clark County Summer Business Institute is a long-standing, county-supported program, which has supplied Williams’ HR department with interns over many years. She has multiple success stories about individual interns who worked for her or other commission departments during the summer, fitting into an adult environment in which they participate in a wide variety of work while also getting job and life-skill training through the institute.
A key message to participating employers is that the jobs given to interns should be substantive. “We don’t want them to shred papers or file paperwork,” says Williams. The effort to provide interesting work has paid off in repeated instances of interns coming back to work after the internship is over—like last year’s intern in the HR department who now works part-time while attending her first year at the College of Southern Nevada.
For Hanne, the seeds to develop an internship program in her county have only been planted recently. She is working on a full-year program in which schools and Johnson County can come together to provide course credit and work experience during high school.
As a test case, she was able to secure an internship for a high school junior, who was interested in microbiology, with the county’s wastewater lab. “Our lab loved it,” she says. In an interview with the student after the internship ended, Hanne heard glowing remarks about the experience, the amount the student had learned, and particularly the experience of having “intellectual conversations about science” that she didn’t usually get with peers, parents and teachers.
Hanne hopes that her vision of the future can be expanded through the region. She envisions a marketing package that could be sent to civic teachers, guidance and career counselors in high schools to gain support within schools for full-year, school-supported internships. The result would be to create a menu of job shadowing and internship opportunities in many local government offices. “Engineering firms are already going to high schools and even middle schools. Wherever they are, we should be right there,” she says. “We have to band together if we’re going to make an impact on the kids.”
An Array of Challenges
Of course, for any internship program to be successful, there need to be people in the office who are able to educate train and mentor interns. But with the advent of remote work, such people can be in short supply.
West Sacramento, California, suspended an active summer internship program in 2020 when the pandemic hit. Kaitlyn Montez, a senior HR analyst, is hopeful the city will be able to bring the program back, but in a retooled format to accommodate both interns and employees that are remote or have hybrid schedules.
Tom Wood, the work-based learning director of Utah’s Alpine School District, the largest district in the state, cites other barriers to gaining participation from cities— even those that are concerned about future workforce needs. Those barriers include worries about the confidentiality of public sector information, insurance concerns and the age restrictions on some jobs. But Wood intends to forge ahead. “I really feel we should be connected to the mayors,” says Wood. “My goal is to develop a good program with the cities. That’s super important.”
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