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Focus on the Workforce: 90 Hours to Employment

By Manlio Castillo
STEM Coach
Vancouver, WA
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Manillo CastilloDuring his senior year at Fort Vancouver High School (Vancouver, WA), Daniil Popov wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after graduation. Even though he was a bright student—maintaining a 4.0 GPA—and enjoyed math and science classes, he wasn’t sure about going to college either.

When Popov was four years old, his family immigrated to the state of Washington from Uzbekistan, a former Soviet republic that borders Afghanistan. His father soon took a job as a tile setter, and now has his own business. Popov figured he would take a job in the family business as a tile setter and help his parents with the bills. “I didn’t want my parents to have to pay for me to go to college,” he said.

However, his outlook changed completely after finishing a 90-hour internship at the local Frito-Lay manufacturing plant in Vancouver, WA.

Located in southwest Washington, Clark County is not only home to Vancouver, but also to 340 high-technology companies that employ over 8800 workers in fields such as thermoplastic injection molding, consumer electronics research and development, and the manufacturing of lasers, silicon wafers, integrated circuits, semiconductors, and chips—potato chips.

In the potato chip manufacturing process, machines are indispensable for fast production. However, Frito-Lay’s factory needed efficiency improvements to minimize waste generation. During his internship, Popov worked with Jason Studer, the site’s packaging specialist, and other interns to minimize packaging waste at the food production lines. Popov and others interns also learned about 6-sigma processes and lean manufacturing. Studer described the interns’ jobs as consisting of “verifying that a particular machine was running a minimal amount of waste and then recording the program settings.

The interns would then transfer those ideal settings to a spreadsheet to keep track of the code that makes the machine run more efficiently. Finally, this data would be made available to subsequent manufacturing runs to ensure that the same recipe was being followed.”

Minimized Waste, Maximized Savings

In a business with such a high volume of production, every effort to minimize waste helps, and with Popov and the other interns’ work, the company saved about $400,000 by minimizing wasted bags.
Popov is very grateful to the career counselor who pointed him in the direction of nConnect, a local non-profit that has partnered with Frito-Lay and other businesses to provide internships for low-income students in southwest Washington. 

nConnect’s mission is to inspire students to successfully explore and pursue careers in the STEM fields. Although Washington state ranks first nationally in the employment of engineers, it ranks 38th in the production of science and engineering bachelor’s degrees. This makes nConnect highly relevant in helping students contextualize these careers through internships and mentoring because it is critical to have a highly educated STEM workforce with the high number of STEM employers in the region. 

nConnect was founded in 2005 to challenge high school students to succeed in more rigorous academic subjects and to prepare them to become future leaders and innovators in the global economy. Through the mentoring program, nConnect has been providing advisers (local engineers, scientists, and other professionals) to encourage and support students taking Advanced Placement classes in math and science. By pairing these professionals with students, nConnect has provided students with an important relationship that brings greater relevance to the rigorous coursework.

High-Demand, High-Wage STEM Fields

The internship program in southwest Washington began in January 2010, when nConnect received federal and state grants to place low-income students into 90-hour internships in high-demand, high-wage STEM fields. I am nConnect’s STEM Coach, a mechanical engineer with experience at The Boeing Co. and Hewlett-Packard who applied to lead the non-profit in this new venture. Through the internship program, many students are discovering that pursuing STEM careers is an attractive option for those who do not seek academic post-secondary education.

Building the program from scratch at the beginning was difficult. Some businesses were skeptical about the contributions that high school students could make without formal or post-secondary training. Without practical examples of which type of projects high school students could contribute, some companies took on the idea of hosting interns as merely a way to give back to the community and increase visibility of their company. Still, others assigned small tasks to the students, in some cases underestimating the students’ capacity. These organizations were surprised to see students finishing projects way ahead of schedule. The companies then had to scramble to find more significant work for the students to take on. Students have been able to directly contribute to the companies’ bottom lines by assisting in projects that, although important for the business, kept getting pushed back due to a lack of resources. 

One intern supervisor commented, “We had the opportunity to witness how important it is to get students more integrated into the business environment—to link their skills with practical experience and to expose our industry to the school to better develop our future work force.”

Since the spring of 2010, 214 students have completed 90-hour internships with 56 different businesses and organizations, ranging from non-profits, to city and county governments, to small and private businesses, to Fortune 500 companies. Of these placements, 22% have been in science fields, 36% in technology, 19% in engineering, and 23% in mathematics. 

In addition to a high number of students (over 90%) reporting satisfaction with the internship program, more than 97% of businesses surveyed also report satisfaction with the program. This is not only evidenced by the fact that 75% of all businesses have held multiple internships over the past three years, but also by the number of students being hired. To date, 29 students have received offers to work either part-time or full-time (upon high school graduation) at the companies where they completed their internship. In addition, 24 more students would have been offered a job if the business would have had funding or the authority to hire.

Experience and Employment

So not only are high school students obtaining practical hands-on exposure to these high-wage jobs, they are also getting hired. Through the internship program, the business community has become aware that high school students can be motivated, reliable and bright, and that many times they just lack the opportunity to be trusted and demonstrate these attributes. This internship program helps solve the dilemma high school students face when they can’t get valuable jobs without experience and can’t get experience without jobs, by letting them get their feet in the door and make a positive impact.

The local school districts have also been involved as nConnect has partnered with them in order to recruit students. During the recruiting process, I meet with students one-on-one to determine their career interests and assess their job-readiness and professionalism. Students then receive help completing or updating their résumés in order to secure an interview with a business. I also coach the students on interviewing and presentation skills, as many students haven’t had a formal job interview.

Prior to starting the internships, students get enrolled in the districts’ work-based learning program, which is already an established means of extending classrooms into the workplace, to ensure that students are covered by school insurance during their internship and to award credit to interns upon completion of the 90-hour commitment. Studies show that students who participate in work-based learning understand how their high school education is relevant as they apply classroom learning in a meaningful environment. Students also acquire tangible experience that can improve their résumés, college applications and their chances of getting a job in the future.

On a report to the Washington Workforce Training and Education Coordinating Board, Lisa Nisenfeld, the past executive director of the Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council and the current executive director of the Columbia River Economic Development Council, reported that “investments in career-related experience during high school can produce substantial and sustained improvements in the labor market prospects and transitions into adulthood of youth. Forging strong, ongoing relationships between the business community and young adults is essential in getting Washington youth the necessary work experience that leads to job opportunities, enhanced work ethic and job skills, and a job-ready résumé.”

Throughout the internship, I assist the students with problem solving around scheduling, transportation, dress code, and additional job-readiness skills such as punctuality and communication. Because the students participating in the internship program come from low-income households, they often need help getting to and from the business sites. nConnect provides assistance in the form of bus passes and, in some cases, gas cards, to make it possible for students to carry through with their commitments. nConnect also provides clothing for students who lack professional apparel or required attire, such as steel-toe shoes.

Positive Impact

When it is possible, I also invite students to events to meet their state legislators and US senators in order for them to share the positive impact from participating in the internship program. More notably, Daniil Popov attended a meeting in Washington, DC, at which the White House was looking to learn about successful internship programs throughout the nation. Popov spoke about his experience with over 40 adults including government officials (White House, Department of Education, Department of Labor), business executives, and nonprofit and school district administrators. “I didn’t know exactly what I would be doing after high school and through this internship I learned that engineering is something I want to pursue,” he told them.
It just goes to show, a lot can happen in 90 hours. ME

This article first appeared in the October 2012 issue of Manufacturing Engineering magazine. A PDF of the article can be found here.

Published Date : 10/1/2012

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