When Roni Shaner goes to college this fall and her professors mention dimensional tolerances or blueprint designs, she will have more than a few textbook pages to supplement her understanding. Shaner will be able to think back to the six months this spring and summer that she spent practicing those concepts as an intern at StoneAge Waterblast Tools.
The internship is the difference between reading something in a textbook and doing it, said Shaner, whose job was to check the functionality of machine parts before they are ready to sell.
Shaner is one of six high school students from around the region who have participated in similar internships, all part of the STEM internship program. The acronym stands for science, technology, engineering and math, and the program provides high school juniors and seniors with job experience in work positions that place a premium on those subjects.
The program began in January and is open to potential interns and interested business partners for the upcoming fall semester.
It is funded mostly through private donations and the Regional Service Area 9 Council, and it is overseen by a committee of people representing local businesses and economic-development organizations, including the La Plata Economic Development Alliance and Region 9 Economic Development District.
Their involvement is a telling sign that beyond its educational value to students, the program is seen by the business world as a bottom-up strategy to improve workforce development in the area.
The goal ultimately is to give students the opportunity to see STEM skills applied in a real work place, said Christine Rasmussen, the program coordinator. And the other side of that coin is to give businesses the chance to connect with future employees and do workforce development and training in their own ways.
One business interested in hiring interns described it as a homegrown approach to developing quality employees.
At the beginning of the process, the internship committee pairs up interested students with businesses that can utilize their talents or interests. Students work five to 15 hours a week for about five months and receive $1,000. One student worked for a security products company, and another worked for Colorado Parks and Wildlife participating in sheep and fish counts and bear studies. Students said the internship is a way to test out jobs in certain fields before they choose a path after high school.
But whether their learning experience will come back to benefit the county someday is anyones guess.
Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the economic alliance, acknowledged that it is a challenge to justify programs that invest in students who most likely will leave the county after school. The direct economic benefits are harder to predict and measure, he said.
The hope is that the student interns will see the job opportunities here and consider them when they begin their careers, Zalneraitis said. Part of the alliances goal is to develop a workforce that will command higher wages, and a big part of that is education, he said.
Through the internship, students really start to learn the basic foundational skills they need to be good employees in future, he said. They appreciate how education relates to jobs that are available.
Though the learning experience students acquire in local businesses may not benefit the community in a direct, measurable economic way, it makes us better off in the grand scheme of things, Zalneraitis said.
Kerry Petranek, CEO of StoneAge, also took a wholistic view of the process.
Sure, we wont hire all of our interns, nor will all of our interns want to work at StoneAge. And yes, cycling interns through various positions isnt always the most efficient process, Petranek said in an email. But these experiences help to mold the future workforce by giving them useful skills and by teaching them about teamwork, responsibility, and business in general. The better the future workforce, the better we are as a nation.