Industrial Internship

LONGVIEW, Wash. (AP) — Six months ago, Steven Jordan lived in survival mode. As the sole provider for his unemployed mother, young sister and himself, the 19-year old scraped together whatever he could to pay the bills with part-time work at Burger King, painting houses and other odd jobs. On knowledge tests, he rated below high-school level. Although he managed to enroll in a few Lower Columbia College classes, thinking about the future wasn’t easy.

“It was terrible. I was constantly going,” said Jordan of Longview.

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Then Jordan got a big break: he landed a paid internship with Northwest Motor Sales & Services, a Longview company that repairs, maintains and installs electric motors. For Jordan and two other interns, Tanner Willman and Jessica White, the internship offered something low-income, at-risk youth don’t often get: mentorship and a launch pad into a new career and way of life.

“For years, I’ve just been kind of winging it,” Jordan said. Now he’s a paid employee at Northwest Motor and he’s thinking ahead at least a few years, he said. He moved into his own rental house and recently bought a new car. He hopes to build a career around industrial sales, and his co-workers are encouraging him to get a college degree.

The recently-completed pilot program organized by Goodwill Industries and Workforce Southwest Washington proved to be so successful, Northwest Motor agreed to host the 10-week internship three times a year. It’s inspired a similar program in Clark County and an industrial internship at Norpac in Longview.

The program provides a model for how to give local youth industrial skills often missing from their resumes, plus employment and intangible life skills that can propel them out of poverty.

“I would say if (these youth) had just applied for any entry-level job position, they wouldn’t have been at the top of the pile. This allowed them an audience with a local employer and the chance, with no pressure on the employer’s funds, to really show their ability to grow,” said Tori Skinner, business development manager for Goodwill Industries in Longview. “And that made a big difference.”

Goodwill’s program is geared toward a demographic called “opportunity youth” — typically low-income people ages 16 to 24 that have some significant barrier to employment or education. They may not have a high school degree or they may struggle with homelessness, poverty or lack of English-language proficiency.In Cowlitz, Wahkiakum and Pacific Counties, about 16 percent of young adults fall into the “opportunity youth” category (2,325 people), which means they don’t have a full-time job and they’re not attending school, according to Workforce Southwest Washington.

About 59 percent of opportunity youth here are living below the federal poverty line, and 37 percent have less than a high-school diploma or equivalent. Many of these young adults are living independently without financial or emotional support from family. Overall in the region, about 33 percent of “opportunity youth” females have their own children to support, too.

Skinner said she wanted to find a new way to develop opportunity youth by working through a local employer, so she reached out to Northwest Motor President Spencer Wiggins about a potential partnership. Wiggins said he saw it as a way to train more local young people in the kinds of industrial skills employers here often bemoan are lacking.

“One of the challenges we face in this (motor) industry, but I think it’s also fairly universal across most of the skilled trades, is that there is a skills gap, a very noticeable one when you’re in a position that does hiring,” Wiggins said.

More importantly though, Wiggins said he saw it as a way to give back to the community.

“It takes work, it takes supervision, it takes planning . (but) this is a small contribution that our organization can make to make an impact,” Wiggins said.

The week before Thanksgiving last November, Skinner launched the program, thinking she would get a few responses on a Facebook post. She was shocked to receive 70 applications. After an initial screening and interviews, three interns were selected: Steven Jordan would work in sales, while Tanner Willman and Jessica White would work in the motor shop.

Funded through federal and state grants administered by Workforce Southwest Washington, the interns worked part-time for minimum wage ($11 an hour) for the first six weeks, then got bumped up to full-time for the last four weeks of the program.

“Paid learning — that’s a big deal so they know they’re not having to take out student loans to do this program. A lot of those (financial) stressors are eliminated through this type of support,” Skinner said.