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Project Iowa to Offer a New Work-Based Learning Program for DMPS High School Students

 YouthWorks Program

February 28, 2022

It is often said that successful businesses put the right people in the right places. But who are the “right people?” Do they all have to have a degree from the same institution, or a certain number of years in the field? Fortunately for society, mainstream businesses are finally broadening their concept of who the “right people” are, giving due consideration to candidates of various genders, racial backgrounds, ages and abilities. Much work remains to be done, and companies cannot do it alone. As businesses continue their efforts to improve diversity and inclusion — and their own bottom line — they should consider the importance of internship programs.

Work-Based Learning

I used to work with a high school senior, James, in one such work-based learning program. He was quiet, which could have been mistaken for a lack of confidence. But he had an initial interest in engineering, so the program placed him in a paid internship at a utility company. There James got to work every day with engineers, on projects of all sizes. He learned a great deal about the industry and gained mentors who assigned him real work. It didn’t matter that the next-youngest person in the office was twice his age; James was a part of the team. The experience showed James that the engineering field was for him after all. Today, James works for a construction company as a field engineer. Asked to reflect years later, James said “Being in the program felt like having a family who supported me in my career. I got introduced to engineering through my high school internship and have stuck with it ever since. I will always recommend programs for the youth so they can get real-world experience.”

James’ success didn’t happen in a vacuum. The robust program required James to commit to nine months of training and work, all during his busy senior year of high school, and mentors in the program supported him along the way. The host company assigned two dedicated employees to act as mentors and supervisors for James, and they took the role seriously. The internship program staff taught weekly professional development and gave structure to James’ year, helping ensure that James was learning and working toward individualized quarterly goals. Both the mentors and the staff had regular conversations with James focused not just on the year at hand but the following year — James’ post-high school plan.

Strong postsecondary outcomes are the norm for interns like James, who commit fully to their work in a supportive professional environment. But for too many students in Des Moines Public Schools (DMPS) and around the country — especially low-income students and students of color —there are few such opportunities to get experience in the professional world while still in high school. As a result, kids don’t learn much about the professional jobs that exist in their community, the preparation they require, and what those jobs are like on a day-to-day basis. They lack connections and conclude that the professional world isn’t for them. Then they graduate from high school and pathways to living-wage careers prove elusive. This manifests in a gap between many young adults and local companies, and a lack of prepared workers for local job openings. According to the Department of Education, in 2021 only half of DMPS high school graduates were enrolled in a college or college-based training program a year after graduation — 14 points behind the state average. High school internships alone won’t change these figures, but they are a crucial piece of the puzzle that has proven highly impactful in cities across the U.S.

From the State Capitol to the Department of Education to the Iowa Business Council, there is broad consensus that we need more work-based learning opportunities for students —particularly low-income and diverse students. These experiences equip high school students with the skills, networks and vision they need to pursue living-wage career pathways after graduation. And at the same time, work-based learning builds brand awareness because teenage interns are likely to share proudly about their company with family, friends and on social media, for an entire school year. Some interns return to the company later as summer workers or full-time hires; the impact on talent pipelines is real. Absent collaborative efforts such as internship programs, companies will continue to struggle to recruit diverse homegrown talent. We should remember that workers are not moving to Iowa from other places in significant numbers; we neglect local young people at our own peril.

A quality 21st century education requires not just great teaching, strong leadership and ample resources, but meaningful and ongoing collaboration between the education, business and nonprofit sectors. Such collaboration is even more important in school districts like DMPS, which is 77% low income; students need as many pathways as possible to living-wage careers. That is why Project IOWA is launching the YouthWorks program in partnership with DMPS in the fall of 2022. After a decade of providing assistance for adults to re-enter the workforce, Project IOWA is expanding its mission to serve teens through paid professional internships. The program will connect enthusiastic young people with businesses that understand the immediate and long-term benefits for the intern, the company and the Greater Des Moines (DSM) community.

To learn more about hosting a YouthWorks intern at your company, contact chrisnoth@projectiowa.org.

Project IOWA has been helping Iowans discover self-worth and fulfilling careers for the past decade and is celebrating with a 10-year Anniversary Party on 3/24. Join the fun and help support another 10 years of life-changing work.

Job opportunities and career resources are abundant in Greater Des Moines (DSM). Whether you're looking to find an internship, a job, develop professionally or grow as a student, we have the resources to help you thrive.

Chris Noth

After moving back to Des Moines in 2019, Des Moines native Chris Noth noticed a lack of professional internship opportunities for students and approached Project IOWA with a proposal to expand the nonprofit's mission to serve teens through Project IOWA's YouthWorks program, which serves underserved students.