ST. GEORGE — At a Wednesday afternoon luncheon organized by the career and technical education department of the Washington County School District, high school students from around the county shared the success stories of their internships with local business partners.
Students presented their history, talents and goals while they related their work experience. With the exception of a short introduction by Dave Gardner, the director of career and technical education for the district, the entire event was hosted and led by high school students participating in the internship program.
Snow Canyon senior Reagan Hopkins said she fell into the internship program by accident.
“I hope through this internship that I’m able to gain better professional skills, be able to work with patients effectively and be able to communicate effectively, as well as just learn as much as I can and grow in the field,” Hopkins said, adding that her “dream job” an occupational therapist assistant.
Hopkins was placed with Healthology Experts, a chiropractic office in St. George. Under the direction of Dr. Justin Traveller, Hopkins was able to receive on the job training and was ultimately hired as a part-time employee.
Dixie High junior Brian Jauregui said he heard about the opportunity from his career counselor.
“I was more than happy to do it because of the opportunities it would give me and because of my age,” he said. “My dream job is to be a mechanic. I’ll be doing diesel and automotive technician, and I’m hoping to be the mechanic that people call to see what’s the problem.”
Juaregui said he was inspired by the work ethic and the drive of his father, an immigrant to the United States who works as a mechanic. Juaregui started the internship program at the age of 16 and was placed with Speed Lube as an automotive technician.
As the students spoke to the assembled business representatives, they gave demonstrations of the tools and resources available to businesses involved in the program currently as well as prospective business partners.
Mike Hassler, work-based learning coordinator for the Washington County School District, said the program has grown exponentially in recent years.
“Back in 2016, we only had 10 companies that would admit to being a partner with us,” Hassler said. “At that point they said, ‘We’re babysitting. Some kids are great, and some kids aren’t great. You have to find a way to weed out the kids who are just trying to ditch class.’ That’s when we installed the professional development workshops, and that’s been the key.”
In order to improve the system, Hassler said they first focused on preparing students for their internships and trying to engage the most motivated and diligent students. Through workshops, mock interviews and career and technical education in the schools, the internship program has grown as businesses have found more and more career-ready candidates coming from the high schools.
Now the school district has 475 business partners, a level of growth that rivals any other district in the state or nation, Hassler said.
“This program does not work without employers,” Hassler said. “If they close their doors, we have nothing. Due to COVID, we had over 120 employers shut their doors to internships. I would ask them to please get with us and see if there’s any way we can reopen those doors and continue making a difference in the next generation of talent.”
Internships for every interest
Madison Rej, a career and technical education coach at Pine View, Hurricane and Water Canyon high schools explained how the internship program works and how the experience is tailored to the needs of the students.
“We’re finding students who want to be interns, we’re qualifying them to be interns and then we’re placing them in companies that fit with the skills that they’re wanting to learn,” Rej said. “Whatever their interest is, if they’ve taken the classes and shown they’ve done everything they can to prepare for that career path, we’ll find them an internship in that career path.”
Some of the most popular pathways are geared towards health care, animal science, construction, business and graphic design, Rej said.
Even the more unique career paths, such as Crimson Cliffs senior Sydney Wahls’ passion for meteorology, have been accommodated through the district-wide program. She was placed with the Desert Research Institute, a publicly-funded weather research organization that’s given her career-specific training. She was also able to quit her part-time job in food service once she was hired part time by the institute.
Hassler said this reflects the reality of several of the students, who want to get into a particular field, “but they work at a car wash or a restaurant.”
“Those jobs are great,” he said, “but how do you bridge from the restaurant to health care? And that’s what this internship does.”
The future of career and technical education in Washington County
Presently, there are three full-time career coaches in the district, including Hassler. He said that they’re currently planning on hiring a fourth instructor to start working this summer and a fifth once the CTE high school is complete.
“We’re installing some stuff in the next calendar year that I believe will double our team within the next few years,” Hassler said. “In about two years, you’re going to see 10 of us. We spend most of our time with the hundreds of kids trying to qualify for the program. Once we build out our team, then we can build out how many more kids we can take in.”
Hassler said there are about 150 students participating in the program this year, a lower figure than usual due to COVID-19. In years past, they’ve served a little more than 200 active interns at a time, but until the number of career coaches increases, they can’t serve many more than that, he said.
Both Hassler and Rej said they loved their work and that helping these students succeed and improve their future career prospects is tremendously rewarding.
“This is the best job ever,” Rej said. “There’s so much more that goes into it than just having a resume and sending the student on their way. We want them to be career-ready – to the point that they don’t need us anymore – so they can graduate high school and get any job they want.”
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