Online Extra: Making the Grade with Students

What's not to like about making a classroom of your business? Interns get real-world experience while you benefit from eager workers

Giving students career guidance and a chance to test their skills may be easier than you think. Thanks to targeted federal funding over the past seven years, your local high school, junior college, or university is likely to have an up-and-running program that offers ways for employers to get involved.

Most of the programs involve internships, mentoring, or so-called "job shadowing." There are many other ways you can work with your local schools, but these three options are a good place to start.

INTERNSHIPS: There's no better way to learn about the workplace than to be there, notes James Arey, who coordinates the Public and Private Service Practicum at Elk Grove High School in suburban Chicago. And for startups trying to stretch their personnel budgets, internships can be quite useful. For example, Arnelle Productions, a San Francisco-based Web content provider, supplements its three-person staff with 10 unpaid interns.

Problems can arise, however, when students and employers don't have a clear idea what they expect from each other. That's why Arey makes sure the student and employer meet before the internship begins and agree on responsibilities and objectives. He also checks in later to see how it's going.

If you'd like a summer intern, a new SBA program can help you locate one with the skills you need. The agency is partnering with the National Academy Foundation, an umbrella organization for high schools. Just call your local SBA office and they'll put you in touch with students from area academies, says Monika Edwards-Harrison, the SBA's deputy administrator for entrepreneurial development.

MENTORING: For starters, mentoring programs aren't "Big Brother"- type arrangements, which provide all sorts of emotional support for kids. It's strictly to help students define career goals and advance in their chosen fields. "The key to making these relationships work is to keep them very focused and structured," says Darla Strouse, a partnership specialist with Maryland's Education Dept. Establish ground rules at the outset, such as how often you'll meet and what you hope to accomplish at each session. These don't have to be lengthy relationships to be effective: even basic information about entering your field, such as what courses to take, publications to read, and organizations to join, can be tremendously helpful to a newcomer.

Mentors also serve as role models, especially in fields where women and minorities are under-represented. Anna Hunt, a geologist at Alpha-Omega Geotech Inc. in Kansas City, Kan., learned as much when a female student told her, "It made all the difference in the world to see a woman working in the field."

JOB SHADOWING: This takes the idea of an onsite visit a step further by allowing students to try their hand at some of your day-to-day responsibilities. Typically, these outings begin with an orientation to provide a glimpse the big picture before students are rotated through different departments.

For example, at CommuniGraphics, a 20-person silk-screening and embroidery company in North Augusta, S.C., students from the local high school get to help the employees print T-shirts and program sewing machines to stitch logos onto fabric. Owner Tracey Hooks tries to incorporate as much hands-on experience as she can into these sessions, so teens choosing careers can make informed choices.

Hooks doesn't strain her company's resources to be of service. Planning and coordinating these events takes a couple of hours at most, she says. Nor does spending time with students get in the way of filling orders because "we only schedule visits on days when we know we'll have downtime."

To set up job shadowing, figure out in advance what are reasonable projects for students to tackle. If yours is a hazardous workplace, make sure the school has students sign a liability waiver. Be prepared to answer a lot of questions including "nosy" ones about your company's earnings and salaries.

Schedule a wrap-up session at the end of the day to tackle broader issues such as the long-term growth possibilities in your field. And don't be surprised if you get homework. Schools often give companies an evaluation form to fill out after the visit, and you may also get to see the students' reports on their visit. With any luck, you'll get A for your efforts.

By Stephanie B. Goldberg

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