It’s no secret that communities in the Dakotas are struggling to meet workforce demands with a steady export of human capital. But what if communities make a concerted effort to bring kids home before they ever have a chance to leave?
“We wanted to ‘grow our own,’” said Amy Miller, Webster Area High School assistant principal and student services director, of a new internship program designed to get young students thinking about local opportunities. “We wanted to look at the millennials who want to come back, want to raise a family here. We wanted to tap into that, address that—and the best time to do that is as early as junior high.”
The Webster internship program matches high school students to local businesses for an internship that goes deeper than job shadowing. The students spend six weeks at a business, two hours each day. Students select a field to explore, and Miller matches their interests with specific local employers. Currently on its third round, about 60 students have interned at more than 20 businesses. Local businesses so far have been receptive to the program, with internships already offered by the hospital, school, lumberyard, newspaper, and agronomists, among others.
“We want to give the students a real experience, show them that those careers are here in Webster,” Miller said.
The internship program isn’t specifically required for graduation—but, because it’s paired with a personal finance course that is required, almost every student will have the opportunity to explore local career options. The program begins with two weeks in the classroom to study employability skills, including full federal health care privacy training.
Melissa Waldner, executive director of the Webster Area Development Corporation, said the school’s commitment to enticing students to think about hometown career opportunities at a young age is promising for the community of almost 1,900.
“We’re blessed to have school leadership who thinks this way,” she said.
Like many South Dakota communities, Webster often has job openings. Waldner said Day County has had as many as 90 open positions. Currently, the average, 50 jobs, are open. Although workforce development and youth engagement are large topics for communities to try to wrap their arms around, Waldner urges them to try.
“You’ve just got to start somewhere and find people who are passionate about it,” she said.
The school is adding another career-exploration opportunity—this time a class, set to launch in the spring. Miller says the class was designed for freshman and sophomores but was even popular among high school juniors, which resulted in a full roster. Students will explore personal interests and abilities, learn about various careers within each of 16 career clusters, tour local businesses, and welcome guest presentations from local professionals. The goal is to get students to think about a wide range of career options at an earlier age and how those careers have a place right here at home.
The students’ excitement for these programs has Miller and other Webster leaders feeling optimistic.
“Our kids want to come back [to Webster], more than I’ve ever seen before,” she said.