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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.

His division currently has openings for four interns, but could certainly double that number in the future. Interns are paid $8 per hour, which is funded from the department's temporary employee budget. Since Newport News already employs a lot of seasonal help, funding the program is a non-issue.

Caldwell attributes the program's success to the fact that the interns' jobs are varied, and they don't get bored. Each is paired with a more experienced worker, which helps the student learn, but the arrangement also works the other way: Interns often help older employees with the more technical (read: computer) aspects of their job.

And like every other public works department, Newport News is preparing for when their older workers move on. “We want to bring these kids up the entire career ladder,” says Caldwell. Some Academy members also offer tuition reimbursement, so if an employee wants to continue his or her education with an associate's or bachelor's degree, that opportunity is there—leading to further career advancement. It's too early to tell if the city's first academy employees will take advantage of this perk.

Broaden The Scope

A 2003 diversity audit looked at the number of women and minorities across all Tempe, Ariz., departments. Though the public works department didn't fall short in either women or minority employees, it decided to be proactive and improve its staff.

Interns were one of the ways to accomplish this goal. One reason Tempe started to bring in interns is to increase the number of women on its workforce.

Tempe's public works department launched an internship program in September 2006. It has four students from Arizona State University—located right in the department's back yard—working in two areas: geography students who work in geographic information systems (GIS) and a civil engineering student assisting transportation/traffic engineers with the city's light rail project.

Interns are paid $12 per hour, and may work either full- or part-time.

“The three GIS mapping interns help to lighten the workload in our engineering division, while giving the students an opportunity to experience a hands-on work environment,” says Jennifer Adams, deputy public works manager in Tempe. Their duties include updating GIS maps and answering questions from the public at the front counter.

The return on investment for Tempe, and certainly for other departments, comes in many forms.

First, interns are often paid less than a permanent employee and don't require health benefits since these perks are generally covered by their school or parents. So departments get the same amount of work for less money.