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Josh Castilleja, an intern with Tempe, Ariz.'s traffic engineering division, learns the basics on the job. Photo: City of Tempe.

Here's a riddle for you: What doesn't cost much, is young and energetic, motivated to learn, and can strengthen your team? Give up? It's an intern!

Some may feel an internship program is a waste of time and drains on current staff resources. It's actually just the opposite. Though staff will need to spend time mentoring and training an intern, which takes both time and resources, the return on investment is so high that it can't be described in simple numbers.

According to Camille Luckenbaugh, research director for the Bethlehem, Pa.-based National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), the No. 1 reason employers have an intern program is to boost their recruiting efforts.

“Our 2006 Experiential Education Survey shows that three-quarters—76%—of employers say their primary motivation for internships and co-ops is to feed into their recruiting program,” she says.

The same motivation applies to public works. For example, Newport News, Va., filled two vacancies last summer with former interns. These full-time employees, who will celebrate their one-year anniversaries shortly, filled vacant equipment operator and concrete maintenance crew positions.

Join The Academy

Newport News is planning for the future in a big way. It is among a group of nine cities (geographically close) that pays into the “Public Works Academy.”

The program evolved through the local chapter of the American Public Works Association and has been in place for five years. The 44 high school students currently enrolled are prepared with on-the-job-training in vocational roles. Each city feeds both money and technical experts, who volunteer on city time, into the training program, which can be separate from the student's curriculum or part of their regular vocational classes.

Annual membership in the academy is based on a fee structure using the city's population. Cities with a population of less than 50,000 pay $500; 50,000–150,000 pay $1000; 150,000–250,000 pay $2000; 250,000–350,000 pay $3000; 350,000–450,000 pay $4000; and 450,000–550,000 pay $5000. Regional utilities, such as a sewer authority, pay $2000 for membership. Newport News, with a population of about 180,000, pays $2000.

This two-year program aims to promote the “trades” in this area known as Hampton Roads. The academy places half its students in full-time public works jobs after high school.

Students' duties range from pavement management to utility locators to landscape crews. “It's construction work. We don't want to sugar-coat it,” says 17-year veteran Ralph Caldwell, Newport News's streets division administrator.