When it comes to student internships in Central Oregon, there’s no lack of intern-seeking businesses or interested young people: It’s connecting the two groups that’s the challenge.

Better Together, a nonprofit education organization meant to increase student success, has been working with schools, businesses, government departments and nonprofit groups, for the past couple of years to come up with an internship system for the region.

The result is Youth CareerConnect, a public-private partnership that streamlines the internship search process by putting internship coordinators in local business associations.

With help from a variety of organizations, including Central Oregon Community College, Oregon Department of Education, U.S. Bank, the Redmond Executive Association and Central Oregon STEM Hub, the Redmond-based Better Together raised $300,000 since January to support the first two years of Youth CareerConnect.

The money paid for three internship coordinators who began this summer: One at the Bend Chamber of Commerce, one at the Madras Chamber of Commerce, and one at the Redmond office of the Economic Development for Central Oregon. After the first two years of Youth CareerConnect, the hope is the community will see enough value in the program to support it financially, Better Together’s Executive Director Katie Condit said.

In Bend, that would cost about $50,000 a year.

Youth CareerConnect streamlines the internship process. The internship coordinators oversee an online system that Condit and others involved call a kind of “Match.com for internships.” People ages 16-24 can upload their applications to the site, and businesses can put up internship postings.

“Schools and businesses won’t have to make hundreds of calls to set up internships,” Condit said.

The three internship coordinators do everything the platform can’t. They help make matches the platform might have missed, help describe to businesses what they can expect, help school counselors and business owners learn the online match system and foster communication among the groups.

Youth CareerConnect is still just getting started. Local school counselors said they’re learning about the system so they can start using it as soon as possible, but students haven’t been placed in internships yet.

Condit expects Youth CareerConnect will succeed for three main reasons: it meets the immediate needs of businesses because interns will do productive work; it builds a pipeline for future talent; and it’s a tangible way for businesses and other organizations to be philanthropic.

Those who brainstormed and created Youth CareerConnect didn’t stumble across those ideas by chance. A lot of research — about three years’ worth — has gone into founding the system, Condit said.

Stakeholders looked at other communities that have created similar internship systems to learn what works, and a variety of voices weighed in.

Now there is a person in each community whom businesses can call for advice, Condit said. The hope is to add internship coordinators in more Central Oregon cities, but in the meantime, cities without an internship coordinator, such as Prineville, can still participate in the system and call on coordinators nearby.

The range of internships and offerings will eventually be wide, Condit said. Internships will be offered in a variety of areas, including tech, hospitality, retail, service, manufacturing and more. It might be that there are only a few internships set up in the first year while the system still gets off the ground. But Youth CareerConnect will be available to businesses and young people looking for a variety of opportunities. Some internships will be paid while others might not.

“We found it depends on the business, it has to be flexible,” Condit said. “It’s what works best for the student and employer.”

David Haines, the internship coordinator with the Bend Chamber, said posting intern positions and finding the right person to fill it can be challenging and time-consuming for businesses.

“For example, EarthCruiser hosts a great internship,” Haines said. “They basically start contacting all of the schools, but for somebody who’s running a business, that can be a lot of effort.”

Haines himself, who graduated from Bend High School in 2011 and Oregon State University-Cascades in 2016, is the product of a local internship: He spent about a year interning at Economic Development for Central Oregon in Bend before being hired for his position with Youth CareerConnect.

With his help and the help of other internship coordinators, businesses aren’t on their own. For businesses that have never offered and internship, the process can be intimidating, and sometimes it can be hard to drum up excitement from students.

In schools, counselors help students upload their applications so that the young people are vetted at some level, Haines said. And he’s been working closely with career and technical education instructors, for example.

Youth CareerConnect also works with youth who are not in traditional schools, Haines said, such as those in Heart of Oregon Corps. It’s also available to recent graduates.

The application is like a regular one for a job, Haines said, and young people are also asked what areas of industry they’re most interested in.

“We’re working on internships specifically, but by building a system like this, we increase a lot of touch points for things like businesses getting into the classroom to talk to students and we’re starting to close the gap between them,” Haines said.

Katy Brooks, who took over as president of the Bend Chamber a year ago, championed starting the internship system in Central Oregon.

“I feel like I’m the benefactor of people who have been thinking about this for a long time,” Brooks said.

But Brooks has been a key voice in the conversations over the past year, too, according to Condit. In the first year, those running Youth CareerConnect are focusing on assisting companies that are in the computer science and engineer fields and the trades such as construction and manufacturing, Brooks said.

Part of the decision to focus on trades is because so many people are retiring out of those jobs and there’s not enough young people to replace them.

“We want to place interns, work the bugs out, then replicate and grow in year two,” Brooks said of Youth CareerConnect.

She also emphasized how stakeholders would like to see Youth CareerConnect keep young people in Central Oregon, or encourage them to return if they go away for secondary education.

“This idea of educating and growing our own is something that’s an important economic factor to sustain an ongoing workforce,” Brooks said.

In Redmond School District, Superintendent Mike McIntosh is pushing that idea, too: Not enough young people realize there are opportunities in Central Oregon for them, he said.

“Redmond, Oregon, is not a bad place to live and work,” McIntosh said. “Someone tells our kids they have to leave town. You can come back — that’s a message I’d love to send our kids.”

Redmond School District has strong career and technical education offerings, and there have been plenty of manufacturing apprenticeships available. McIntosh is happy with that, and wants to see students interested in other areas have similar opportunities.

“I had a vision three years ago that our school system lacked career education,” McIntosh said. “It struck me that I have close to 500 seniors every year and many graduate having no real idea what they want to be, what they want to do, where they want to go.”

Internships can give his students and graduates a taste of a career they’re interested in to see if they actually like it, while teaching them basic job skills, such as dressing appropriately and interacting with superiors.

While Youth CareerConnect is in its early stages, stakeholders including McIntosh are excited about the system and what it will mean for the future.

“Katie (Condit) stepped up to the plate and hit a home run,” McIntosh said.

— Reporter: 541-383-0325, kfisicaro@bendbulletin.com

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