Archived Story

Austin Steps Up

Published 5:01am Monday, July 15, 2013
Laura Brock, Hormel Foods corporate manager of diversity and inclusion, jokes with interns Emily Johannsen, from left, Ochudo Cham and Nancy Rodriguez about their presentations they will have to give at the end of their internships with Hormel.
Laura Brock, Hormel Foods corporate manager of diversity and inclusion, jokes with interns Emily Johannsen, from left, Ochudo Cham and Nancy Rodriguez about their presentations they will have to give at the end of their internships with Hormel.

Seven local high schoolers aren’t just working a part-time job this summer — they’re getting a taste of a professional workplace from Austin’s largest employer.

Austin Step-Up, a new work experience program aimed at preparing students for their next steps after high school, gave juniors from Austin High School and Pacelli Catholic Schools an internship opportunity with Hormel Foods Corp. Step-Up participants learned resume and interviewing skills during May training sessions before putting them to the test at Hormel Foods Corp. Those accepted for an internship with the food manufacturer began in June and will continue working through mid-August.

Pacelli senior Jacob Herald works in the Human Relations department at Hormel Corporate North.
Pacelli senior Jacob Herald works in the Human Relations department at Hormel Corporate North.

“We’re very excited about it as another opportunity for students,” Alberts said.

The idea started at the beginning of the year, when a representative from Citibank in the Twin Cities spoke with Hormel CEO Jeff Ettinger about AchieveMpls, a nonprofit partner of Minneapolis Public Schools that started the Step-Up Achieve program.

That program, around for about 10 years, places 800 young people between 16 and 21 in paid internships with 150 Twin Cities companies, nonprofits and public agencies, such as the mayor’s office.

“We thought it would be great to mirror a program like that in our Austin community,” said Laura Brock, Hormel’s corporate manager of diversity and inclusion. “We really wanted to expand the diversity initiative for Hormel Foods.”

Ettinger took the idea to Superintendent David Krenz, who mett with Hormel executives to flesh out the idea. They also brought it to Pacelli Catholic Schools to ensure the program was not limited to public school students.

“We were very purposeful in what the program was going to look like,” Bergstrom said, adding AchieveMpls helped local organizers get the program set up.

Organizers targeted this summer as a pilot for the program. They limited applications to high school juniors, knowing those same students were likely to stay in the community as they resume school as seniors in the fall. Alberts said that allows organizers on both the schools’ side and Hormel’s to learn what worked and what needs improvement.

“We can actually interact with them and find out how we can make the project better,” he said.

All 18 students involved also took an evaluation after the training period, and the seven student interns will undergo an exit interview at the end of the summer so the organizers have more feedback to consider.

Hormel, as the only Step-Up partner working with students on this first pilot run, originally had planned to accept up to five interns. Ultimately, it hired on seven of the student applicants — six from AHS and one from Pacelli.

“Hormel really felt like they wanted to have these students placed,” Alberts said.

Income was a factor in the application process, he said, as the program looks to provide an opportunity for students who would not normally consider a career in a corporate, professional setting to sample that line of work. The students are gaining skills in a workplace setting and applying themselves to a job, he said, while also learning to interview and put together a strong resume.

“It’s really trying to target and identify students who might not normally think of themselves outside of school as working in a corporate-type environment,” Alberts said, adding it fits well with the school’s strategic goal to prepare students for the next steps after high school.

A new opportunity

The Step-Up program is not the only effort Austin High School makes to prepare students for their career and get them work experience.

“We have a couple different courses at the high school that are somewhat similar to it,” Bergstrom said.

A mentorship course, for example, puts students side-by-side with professionals in a field of their interest for a total of 35 hours. Students get a taste of the profession to decide whether they want to pursue it as a career. Even if they don’t like the line of work, the experience gives them that insight before they invest in several years of college courses.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Bergstrom said.

Another option the school already offered was a work experience course, which focused less on mentoring but still gave students school credit.

What sets the Step-Up program apart from existing programs is twofold, Bergstrom said. Students are paid for their work, with wages initially planned between $7.25 and $10 per hour for 20-30 hours a week. Students that applied for Step-Up also went through a training process that included lessons on how to interview for a job and how to make a resume.

“They had to go through eight hours of training in order to continue to be a potential candidate for the position,” Bergstrom said.

During the interview, students were asked to rate their preference for what type of job they wanted to work, ranging from human resources to logistics to research and development.

“We were pretty excited,” Brock said. “We were able to place everyone in their top one to two.”

Once the seven selected students started their internship, Hormel employees continued to work with the students and give them constructive feedback.

Austin student Emily Johannsen, who will be a senior this year, works from her desk at Hormel Corporate South.
Austin student Emily Johannsen, who will be a senior this year, works from her desk at Hormel Corporate South.

Future prospects

Going forward, organizers are optimistic about the program.

“The hope is we can grow it from there and maybe even get some more businesses in the community involved with this,” Bergstrom said, adding he hopes this pilot run of the program gets other businesses thinking about taking part.

If Step-Up continues to a second year, Brock said she hopes to start the process earlier, giving both the participating companies and the interested students more time to get their schedules in line. The collaboration between AHS and Hormel, however, was a success.

“I think the partnership has been phenomenal,” Brock said.

The chances of the program continuing are high, Alberts said.

“The students are having a wonderful experience,” he said. “It sounds like the employer is pleased.”

Bergstrom said he was impressed to see the responsibility and hard work of all 18 participants.

“These kids have really set the tone,” he said.

Students sound off on Step-Up

The seven students taking part in the Austin Step-Up program this summer will be the first high school interns Hormel has hired. They comprise Austin High School students Ochudo Cham, Okong Gilo, Emily Johannsen, Akeem Oman, Nancy Rodriguez and Ryan Synoground, along with Pacelli High School student Jacob Herold.

The students first found out about the program when AHS Principal Brad Bergstrom called the junior class to an assembly earlier this year. All told, 18 students ended up completing the training process, which helped prepare them for applying to Hormel.

“It was really helpful,” said Emily Johannsen, a student working in environmental engineering with Hormel.

Johannsen said she learned to figure out what employers are looking for and base her answers during the interview off that expectation.

Students also were taught some of the “red flags” of interviewing. Ochudo Cham, who interns at the production plant’s human resources office, said the tips included plenty of advice on “what not to do when you’re being interviewed.”

When the time came to perform the actual interview, the students were more than a little intimidated.

“I was pretty nervous at first,” Johannsen said.

Rodriguez and Cham agreed, saying they thought about the interview for days in advance. After they met Brock, however, they began to feel more at ease. That trend continued as they adjusted to their positions with Hormel.

“They treat you a lot like you’re part of the family,” said Nancy Rodriguez, an intern working in research and development.

When it came to placing the students in their positions, Brock said Hormel took the students’ preferences into account. They were split between the north and south corporate buildings and the plant.

“They all have something different,” Brock said.

The students are working separate from one another in different areas of the company, digging into their individual roles and learning from those in the department around them. They reunite every Friday to touch base.

“We connect them on Fridays just to get together … and say, ‘How’s it going?’” Brock said.

Roughly halfway through the experience, Cham spoke highly of the internship, which is her first job.

“It’s amazing so far,” she said, adding she never knows what to expect coming to work and her managers keep

Rodriguez agreed.

“It’s a great opportunity,” she said. “It opens up so many doors.”

Johannsen found coming to work in a corporate environment expanded her perception of the various workplace roles.

“It showed me how many different careers there are,” she said.

Austin seniors Ochudo Cham, from left, Nancy Rodriguez and Johannsen talk about they benefit from their time at Hormel.
Austin seniors Ochudo Cham, from left, Nancy Rodriguez and Johannsen talk about they benefit from their time at Hormel.

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