Tucson's intern program gets the job done

In the battle to recruit and retain skilled information technology workers,

big-name high-technology firms and dot-coms with the edge in money, perks

and prestige outgun public-sector organizations, especially at the local

level. But an Arizona city is initiating a pre-emptive strike to capture

blue-chip candidates before they hit the job market.

Tucson's strategy is to find students in technical fields, train them,

then put them to work while they're in school. The primary target is nearby

Pima Community College.

And after two years, officials say the Department of Information Technology's

Technical Intern Program is paying off — for the city and the students.

DIT Director Todd Sander said the idea came to him after listening to

lamentations from fellow public-sector CIOs about the difficulty of attracting

skilled IT workers.

"I started thinking we should stop feeling sorry for ourselves and that

maybe we should be taking advantage of our high turnover rates," Sander

said. If the military could promote itself as a great place to start a career,

maybe students wouldn't mind filling odd shifts in the city's data center

to get their feet wet, he told himself.

When Sander approached Ann Houck, head of Pima's Computer Information

Systems department, in late 1998, she immediately embraced the idea. Her

office sent flyers to students' homes during Christmas break because Sander

was pushing for a February start.

Pima's computer department accepted applications by phone and e-mail,

then matched candidates to job specifications developed with DIT, Houck

said. They faxed a list of qualified applicants to the city, and then students

set up their own interviews. Now, information on the internship program

is included with students' registration materials.

The interns are stepping in to work on projects that have long been

neglected because of staff shortages. "The exciting thing about this is

[the interns] are doing real projects. They are not just filling a desk,"

said Liz Wallendorf, a DIT project manager.

Sander is surprised by how much talent interns have brought to technical

writing, programming, database development and project management tasks.

"I thought we were going to end up with students who were young and

exploring the workforce for the first time, people who would be able to

do a little tuning around the Web pages," he said. "But we've found their

computer fundamentals have been very solid. There is no youthful confusion

here."

Richard Brown and Bill Marum typify the kind of students DIT attracts

— people in their 40s with a bit of computer knowledge pursuing second or

third careers. And they have taken on all manner of tasks.

Brown, a former osteopath, installed a local-area network and planned,

procured and implemented a new event management system for the Tucson Convention

Center, something that had been in the works for two years.

Marum, previously a baker and owner of John Dough Bread Co., built Web

pages for the court and police departments. And when the city's Webmaster

quit, he stepped in until the city hired a new person.

The city gets all that for a little more than $9 an hour.

"It's pretty darn cheap for technical labor," Wallendorf said.

Students put in about 25 hours each week, depending on their academic

schedules. But "we tell them, "Whenever you can get a job, you owe us nothing.

Leave immediately,' " said Jessie Sanders, the city's strategic initiatives

program manager in charge of the intern program.

The city pays students with money available from vacant positions because

shifting money in the city budget is easier than requesting more of it.

But Todd Sander said he wants authority to tap a greater percentage of the

unused salaries so he can hire more interns.

In the meantime, Jessie Sanders said, "We're telling departments: "If

you want some interns dedicated to you, pay for them, and we'll train them,

manage them and house them.' "

Despite the low pay, interns say they are happy to be making money while

going to school. Pima also gives them course credit during the two- semester

program. But the big incentive is the real-world experience.

"I picked up other skills beyond computer and Web programming," Brown

said, such as management and teamwork skills. "You just can't find that

in a class."

"You take all these courses and you're not sure what you've learned,"

Marum said. "Being able to contribute real work in a real office was a huge

confidence builder. The atmosphere has been very supportive."

Participants and managers agree that the key to program success is hands-on

supervision.

Jessie Sanders, who used to be a teacher, carefully tends to his flock.

He gives the interns projects, and if they need help, he counsels them.

Most of the advice centers on organizational issues — not technical ones.

But once he gets them going, he tends to stay out of their way.

"I don't think we spend a whole lot of time more on training than for

our regular staff," Todd Sander said. "They are pretty much managed as one

of the team."

It's no accident that handholding is avoided. Interns go through a screening

process not unlike applying for any other job. They must be enrolled in

computer courses, receive recommendations from their instructors and be

interviewed by members of Todd Sander's staff, who make the final selection.

"We've only had one person who has washed out," Sander said.

The Pima pipeline has brought Tucson 25 interns who have worked in various

city departments. Three of them have gone on to full-time jobs with city

agencies.

The Department of Development Services, which last summer embarked on

an aggressive program to develop Web applications, hired intern- program

graduates Marum and Brown.

"I couldn't be happier," said Ernie Duarte, assistant director of the

Department of Development Services. "They have really demonstrated an ability

to meet our needs."

Marum and Brown are technically DIT employees, but their salaries are

paid for by Development Services. As with most IT positions in the city,

DIT maintains oversight of the former interns because "nontechnical people

don't know how to pick technical people, and they don't know how to manage

them," Jessie Sanders said.

Initially, there was a reluctance to embrace DIT's support, just because

of traditional departmental barriers and the desire to be self-sufficient,

Duarte said. "But there was a real pressing need to start on these proj-ects.

And I'll be honest with you, it has been extremely refreshing" to work with

the IT shop.

Aside from developing a pool of people who might want to work for the

government, the program is helping improve Tucson's prospects for economic

development. Todd Sander said he created the program with the express purpose

of turning interns over to the business community. Without a skilled technical

workforce the city cannot lure high-tech firms looking to relocate from

Silicon Valley, he said.

"They want people with some real-world experience, so I thought we could

bridge that gap while meeting our own immediate need," Todd Sander said.

Graduates of the program are working for the local power company and

a software developer.

Also, Pima has added technical internships within the college, at Pima

County Superior Court and with private companies.

DIT would also like to set up an intern program with the town's biggest

institution of higher education: the University of Arizona. Students in

that school's highly-rated Management Information Systems department could

have more experience using complex software tools, such as enterprise Java-Beans,

than DIT personnel. But Jessie Sanders says he is not optimistic that he

will be able to find students who can fit an internship into a tight academic

schedule, or that he can tailor a summer program for them.

Meanwhile, Tucson's Sander-and-Sanders team is sharing its self- sufficient

staffing solution with fellow members of Public Technology Inc., the Washington,

D.C.-based technology arm of the National League of Cities and its sister

organizations.

"The neat thing about the Tucson program is it is something that cities

without big IT departments or financial resources could duplicate," said

Dale Bowen, PTI's director of online services. "Maybe this internship program

is something that a group of cities could band together and share."

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