Durham students get real-world experience in summer program

Aug. 06, 2013 @ 06:17 PM

Seth Close wants to be an electrical engineer, but when it came down to it, he said he didn’t actually know what they do day-to-day.

The 17-year-old has studied engineering at Riverside High School, and he has an interest in robotics. He said he has previous work experience at a dry cleaning business, however.

Through the Durham YouthWork Internship Program this summer, he was placed in the research and development offices of Raleigh-based Sensus, a company that provides smart electric, water and natural gas meters.

As an intern at the company, Seth said he tested circuit boards and other devices. He said he was happy to be in a place without the constraints of curriculum.

“I can learn as much as I want to – it’s a wonderful thing,” he said.

He was one of 347 students selected for the program out of 1,600 applicants.

James Dickens, youth program coordinator for Durham’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development, said program leaders eventually want to offer a spot to each student that applies. In working with the county and school system, he said they aimed to combine resources and increase the number of students placed and boost the number of participating businesses.

This year, he said, students were placed in government offices, with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, at N.C. Central University and Duke University, with the design consulting firm Kimley-Horn and Associates, and at other offices.

Most of the money used to pay students came from the city and county, he said, but was also supported by businesses in some cases. The funding for the Sensus was provided by the city.

Students 14 to 21 years old applied, were interviewed and then matched based on career interests. They also went through pre-employment training in which they learned conflict resolution and other skills.

Steven Williams, logistics and traffic manager for Sensus in North America, said he advocated for the company to participate in the program this year. He’s also chairman of the Durham Workforce Development Board.

When he was a student in Durham, he said, he participated in a summer work internship program. He worked in the claims department at an insurance company. He believes that exposure helped him with his focus.

He said he believes it’s important for students to explore their job options. His mother worked at a tobacco factory in Durham, but the area’s economy has moved on from tobacco and textile manufacturing. Jobs now include fields ranging from engineering to architecture.

Dan Pinney, Sensus’ director of engineering for water, gas and street light products, said that the company has offered a college internship program, but has not had one for high school students. The company accepted three students this year.

The students worked in Sensus’ research and development office in Morrisville, which employs about 200 people. A provider of smart meters, communication systems, software and services for electric, gas and water businesses, the company employs more than 3,300 people globally, and has more than 300 employees in the state.

Pinney said high school students have fresh eyes and ask good questions. He said the company wanted to be active in giving back, and also involved in getting young people interested in science, technology, engineering and math to help bring along the next generation of recruits.  

“This is not about mathematics cranking through equations, this about building something,” Pinney said of the work done by Sensus employees. “Our company is a technology company. We can only innovate from the people that we have.”

Riverside High School student Matthew Gibson, 16, said he’d heard a Sensus employee speak at his school during a job showcase. He was interested in computer science, so he worked with the software group at Sensus.

He said he started out knowing nothing, and started learning a computer programming language.

Pinney said students were interviewed and placed within the company based on their interests. They were given real-world problems to solve, he said, adding that students had a range of abilities coming in.

“This was not busywork for us,” he said.