Through its IGNITE program, the United Way of Southwest Virginia has spent the last few years attempting to bridge the gap between education and employment in the region. This summer marks the next phase of that effort, the implementation of an internship program in which students as young as 16 are paid for work at area manufacturers, businesses, and public institutions.

Melinda Leland oversees the IGNITE internships. She brings a level of expertise to the role from her years as dean of Workforce Development and Continuing Education at Virginia Highlands Community College.

Leland, already fully cognizant of the political tightrope walk of not threatening existing education-based programming while creating new, effective programs, said Virginia’s own “Profile of a Virginia Graduate” standards pointed the way toward establishing the internships.

“High school freshmen this year, have to have some work-based learning in order to graduate,” Leland says. “Now our research says a lot of students are lacking soft skills. At the same time, a lot of students don’t work during the summer.”

The internships allow students to learn soft skills while learning about existing employment opportunities within a few miles of their homes, and picking up some technical skills along the way.

The United Way provides each intern with eight hours of pre-workplace training on basics of workplace decorum and responsibility. Then each company pays the intern for 80 hours of work.

Under those terms, 33 companies stepped forward this year to create 94 positions. “Currently we have 14 schools with students that have applied, 16 companies who have hired interns at this moment, and 25 interns that have been hired,” Leland said in late June. “We will probably round that number up to about 32 interns.”

Among those interns are McKenzie Barger, a recent graduate of John Battle High School, who is currently learning lean business practices, and Jules Lemmon, a rising senior at Holston High School who is working in global sustainability, both at Universal Fibers.

“My work changes week-to-week,” Lemmon says. “Last week I was redesigning metric boards and making data more interesting. This week it’s 3D printing wind turbines to teach kids about renewable energy.”

Says Barger, who plans to attend Radford University this fall, “I have been wanting to go to college and get my degree in software engineering and cyber security. But also, I have looked at getting a job here, maybe applying in the IT facility because it would go hand-in-hand with what I’m going to do in the future.”
Rick Nunley, director of Human Resources at Universal Fibers, says the plant on Industrial Park Road in Bristol employs around 500 employees, but that with the graying of that workforce, the need to find young talent is paramount.

“Finding future workers is always a concern in the manufacturing sector because a while back it lost some of that appeal to students in the schools and in homes. This is an opportunity for us, because our tenure level is around that 17- to 20-year mark. Knowing we have future voids in our pipeline, any opportunity that we have to corral, teach, train and have the possibility to retain young people here at Universal Fibers is on the high priority list.”

High school students generally don’t consider all the options available to them in manufacturing simply because they’re unaware of those options, Nunley said.

“Our students in high school have probably never had any exposure not only to Universal Fibers, but to any manufacturing operation,” Nunley said. “So this entry into what we do here has to be somewhat exciting for the interns, but it also has to have a purpose and a meaning that they can leave here and know that there is a connection between what happens here and what they want to do with their lives.

“We’re proud to be a part of this internship program, simply because of the cradle-to-career concept that it brings to the table,” Nunley says. “This is a great grass-roots effort to get some manufacturing exposure down into the school-age student level.”

Click here to read about Ignite internships in the 2019 July edition of the Business Journal