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DL has model school intern biz program

Jean Hartl, registered dietitian and diabetes educator at St. Mary's, spoke to students as part of an occupations class field trip. Submitted Photo1 / 2
Detroit Lakes students participating in a health occupations class listened to presentations from various health providers from Essentia Health St. Mary's. Submitted Photo2 / 2

One of the main goals for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce for next year is to encourage other schools and cities to participate in School-to-Work programs, using Detroit Lakes as an example of a successful program.

"One of the Minnesota Chamber's priority issues for the 2013 session of the legislature is to make some improvements in the way we prepare young people, and folks already in the workforce, to make a job transition," said Chamber Senior Vice President Bill Blazer.

He said the chamber has a list of ways to implement that priority, and one of those ways includes integrating career opportunities into K-12 curriculum.

"You can't wait until somebody's at the community college or the state university until you start talking to them about a variety of their range of career options," he said. "We need to do it sooner than later."

He said Detroit Lakes, Brainerd-Baxter-Nisswa and Albert Lea are good examples of cities and schools working together to provide students with a taste of what career they have an interest in.

"I'm sure there are more, but I bring those up as examples who supply our state's economy with the kinds of workers we're going to need in the future," he said.

The coordinator for the Detroit Lakes School-to-Work Program is Vern Schnathorst, and he agrees that the program that started in 1996 in Detroit Lakes is certainly beneficial to both students and the businesses where they intern.

Evolution of DL program

When the program started in Detroit Lakes 16 years ago, "it was more of an apprenticeship" with Team Industries in Audubon and BTD in Detroit Lakes, Schnathorst said.

Students spent a three-hour chunk of time out of their day at the manufacturing business. That much time became too much for the students trying to get their classroom requirements done as well, and it had to be revamped.

Over the last decade though, the program has grown to include just about any career a student is interested in -- though there are exceptions.

For example, Schnathorst said some students have been interested in being physician assistants, but with confidentiality laws, doctors can't have high schoolers in the exam rooms with them.

So instead, he tries to find them something else closely related to what they are interested in.

It's those adjustments and dedication through the School-to-Work program at the high school that has caused other districts in the state to call Schnathorst -- and his predecessor who started the program, John Flatt -- for advice on how to get the program started in their community.

Now, the kids must be able to block off two periods from their class schedule so they can spend between an hour and 90 minutes at the worksite to make it worth everyone's time.

Because of the need for the schedule flexibility, he said 80-85 percent of the students doing the internships are seniors.

He said he's helped students discover that the career they wanted is perfect for them, while others have found that their first choice wasn't what they anticipated. And it's certainly better to find out before four years of college.

He said one student was sure she wanted to go into radiology. When she got to her internship, she realized she had a bit of a needle phobia, so that didn't work out.

Next she tried an internship with a pharmacist. That didn't work out either. She tried one last internship, with a physical therapist this time, and found the perfect fit.

"She was relieved and happy, knowing this is what she wants to do," Schnathorst said.

She is now attending college for physical therapy.

Schnathorst said it's students like that that come back and realize their chosen career maybe isn't the right one for them that makes the program "even more valuable."

Schnathorst sees about 120 students a year going through the School-to-Work program, and about 50 percent try a couple internships out before they find the right fit.

Some internships have even turned into a job after graduation.

New tech program

About a year ago, a meeting was held between the city, local manufacturers, M State and Schnathorst because the manufacturing companies had a desire for more skilled workers.

"It was a brainstorming session to see what we can do," Schnathorst said.

After some quick planning and acquiring some equipment and curriculum, the school was able to implement a metals, fabricating and manufacturing class this fall.

There are 35 students in the inaugural class.

"There's an interest there," he said. And since this is the first year of the program, "it's going to evolve, obviously."

Benefit to businesses

Not only do programs like these help students get a feel for a chosen career, but it also lets companies get the word out regarding what they are looking for in new workers.

Businesses support the program and understand it's a benefit to them as well, Blazer said.

"Even if they can't do it, they still see the value in it," Schnathorst said.

For instance, some students are interested in wildlife, so the district can work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service but only in the fall and spring because during the winter, there's not much going on.

When Schnathorst has students that wish to be elementary teachers, they work with the teachers in the district, and the teachers, he said, are thrilled.

Since budget cuts have eliminated classroom aids over the years, the teachers like having the teenagers there to assist them.

He said he works to be mindful of the businesses also and not stick interns with them year-round.

"Our district has seen good results," he said of the program as a whole. "When they leave here, hopefully they make some good (career) decisions."

Starting out even earlier

Schnathorst has been working with elementary and middle school students on career exploration activities as well.

He arranged for 200 eighth-graders to tour three college campuses in Fargo-Moorhead.

North Dakota State University highlighted their engineering and agriculture fields; Minnesota State University Moorhead highlighted their communications, arts, science and film studies fields, and M State Moorhead gave a tour of their entire campus.

"It gave them an idea of 'maybe that's why I'm doing homework and getting good grades,'" he said.

He also arranged for a group of students to tour Essentia Health St. Mary's, and several workers in various fields talked to the students about healthcare careers.

Getting kids exposed to various career options early is important to their future, he said.

"One of our objectives for the coming year is regardless of what the legislature does, to work with local chambers and private businesses to expand the availability of internships for high school-aged students. And just to think of more strategies to give them more exposure to the world of work," Blazer said.

He said the fact that there are some models around the state, like the one in Detroit Lakes, makes it easier to design a way to get other cities and school on board.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.