Tucson's intern program gets the job done
- By Eric Kulisch
- Feb 04, 2001
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
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
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
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
"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."