Interning for the future

September 24, 2008
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“It was a pretty clear signal that everybody was concerned about educational attainment,” said Greg Northrup, president of WMSA. “That part was easy. What are you going to do about it is the question.”

The organization is partnering with WIRED Southeast Michigan and WIRED Mid-Michigan to help broaden Michigan’s educational attainment. The WMSA defines educational attainment as “the annual estimate of the percentage of persons age 25 to 34 years with a bachelor’s degree or higher.” According to a 2005 U.S. Bureau of the Census survey, the percentage in West Michigan trails the state and the country.

The partnership is working to build that base of educational attainment through a program called the Internship Initiative. The program intends to create 25,000 internships statewide and more than 3,000 in West Michigan — all in the next two to three years.

“Our challenge was how do we make West Michigan better than the state, better than the U.S. average,” said Northrup. “The conclusion we came to, as we came to a whole set of options and actions, was internships.”

One third of the $300 million dollar budget has been provided by WIRED and has already been put to use in order to meet the aggressive goal. WMSA has hired Cindy Brown as project manager, as well as Lambert and Edwards, to help market the campaign.

WMSA also is building a Web site to connect businesses, colleges and universities with students for internships.

 “One of the things we’re doing is what we call the Internship Portal,” said Northrup. “(It) will be one place on our Web site where businesses and employers can go in and say, ‘I have an internship. I’m looking for interns to do this.’ I can select which colleges or universities to go to. It will be statewide, because we’re partnering with our friends on the east side of the state as well as in the middle of the state.”

Northrup said it is important for the initiative to be statewide, as many students who go to school on one side of the state may go home during the summer to the other side, and there need to be options to make it convenient for those students.

The portal is planned for a Beta launch in early October 2008 and a hard launch in January in order to be ready for students looking for internships in the spring. The portal will connect students directly with employers, and will connect employers with college and university internship placement faculty.

The portal will simplify the employer’s task of filling out the same paperwork multiple times for each university or college by creating one form that fits all the schools’ requirements.

“We have to make it easier for employers to figure out where to go,” said Northrup. “The other thing we needed the portal for was, if I go to this college, they have these requirements. If I go to another college, they have requirements that are not the same. The portal is intended to make it easy. I go and fill out one set of forms.

“And at the same time, hopefully, we create a lot of interest on the part of students because then they have access into a much larger set of companies that they might not have had access to before.”

Sara DeVries, assistant director of career services at Hope College, said the initiative will also help colleges find small to midsize companies that otherwise might be overlooked.

“This initiative facilitates development of relationships between colleges and employers, especially with small to midsize employers that may not be on the radar screen of many colleges. Those employers that don’t have big Web sites, that don’t automatically know about and come out to our career fairs, that don’t show up when we’re doing Internet searches to try and find area employers for our students, will hopefully be the group that is targeted through this initiative.” said DeVries, who is also on the Internship Initiative advisory committee.

Small to midsize companies are exactly who WMSA is reaching out to with its Internship Toolkit.

“If I’m a small or midsized employer, it will have a set of templates or documents in there that say, ‘How do you create a project plan? How do you do mentoring? How do you do an evaluation process? Can you provide the feedback back to the universities?’

“The long-term objective is if you create internships, in hypothesis, then we will likely retain the graduates at the time of graduation because they will likely be hired by the companies they interned with.”

Northrup gave Alticor as an example; around 40 percent of its employees are hired after completing one of the company’s internships.

“I think there are a vast number of (small and midsized companies) that are untapped for internships right now, and the site will help us become aware of those opportunities and those employers,” said DeVries.

“That allows for a relationship development process where, as colleges, we can go out and meet with those employers and talk about what is expected of an internship, and for those employers who have maybe never have had an intern before, help educate them on that process and help them walk through all the questions they may have. But if we’re not sure that they’re there and they’re interested, we can’t do that.”

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