Municipal governments use college internships to snag future employees

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In 2002, Michael Young was still a Midwesterner, earning his master’s degree in public administration at the University of Kansas. But in order to graduate, he needed to complete a year-long internship, so he accepted a post as management intern with the town of Lexington, which made him the only person in his class to head to New England.

“I came to Massachusetts as a risk, but it was a wonderful risk,” says Young. The internship, he says, “gave me exposure to all areas of the organization and allowed me to create bonds and [pursue] mentoring opportunities” with town employees.

The risk paid off for Young, who now has a permanent position as budget officer for the town. But Lexington was just as much a winner, since many municipalities, as well as state agencies, are having trouble finding people—and keeping them—for government jobs, which generally pay far less than similar positions in the private sector. And communities are beginning to catch on to internship programs as a great way to snag young people before they enter the job market. And while someone like Michael Young is a great out-of-state catch, cities and towns are also working with graduate schools in their own back yards to prevent public-servants-in-training from leaving the Bay State.

Public management internship programs provide students with career experience, stipends to help defray expenses, and, in many cases, a working tour of municipal offices from finance to sanitation. At the same time, cities and towns use the extra hands to work on budget reports and other tasks.

“It keeps us fresh,” says Linda Crew Vine, assistant town manager in Lexington, which began its internship program 20 years ago. “Our interns don’t just come in and watch, they take over major initiatives.”

For example, Kerry Evans, a Quincy native who received her MPA from Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg, is working on a customer service project aimed at making Lexington Town Hall easier for citizens to navigate.

“I’ve realized that this is a profession I want to stay in,” says Evans, who is beginning her second year as an intern in town government. “But I wasn’t sure where I fit in, and [the internship] helped me figure that out.”

It also helped Lexington figure some things out. “Many special projects in some communities wouldn’t be implemented without these programs,” says Victor DeSantis, director of the Institute for Regional Development and an instructor in Bridgewater State College’s MPA program. “Having access to newly trained and enthusiastic professionals at a lower cost is a real benefit.”

Bridgewater State is doing its part to encourage partnerships between cash-strapped municipalities and experience-hungry students. Last year, the college won a $90,000 grant from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development to support three MPA students who wanted to combine their coursework with internships. One of the students chose an internship in the Taunton mayor’s office.

It’s not only smaller communities that take advantage of these on-the-job training programs. For 10 years now, Boston City Council has had an internship program that includes not only graduate students but also high schoolers and undergraduates. Kelly Koput became an intern for the city council while a student at the New England School of Law, helping to draft legislation and research legal questions. That experience led her to her current job, as an attorney for the corporations division of the Secretary of State’s office.

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“I was trying to figure out what to do after law school,” says Koput. “After they offered me the internship, I was interested in staying on as long as possible.”

Sometimes, even an internship that takes a native public-management student out of state pays off for government agencies here in Massachusetts. Originally from Alford, on the New York State border, Christopher Ketchen received his MPA from the University of Massachusetts­Amherst. After serving an internship with Prince George’s County, Maryland, Ketchen stayed on for three years, working in the county executive’s office and the budget office. But this spring, Ketchen returned to his home state, becoming a budget manager for the town of Wellesley.

“I’ve realized how special and unique local government is in Massachusetts communities,” he says.

Victoria Groves is a freelance writer living in Chelmsford.