CASTLETON — A new partnership between Castleton University and Rutland’s recently merged economic development organizations aims to revitalize the local workforce while connecting students with the greater Rutland community.
Last week, Castleton announced its plan to work with Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region to enhance internship and career opportunities and increase focus on community engagement.
CEDRR is a new organization that was formed through a recent merger between the Rutland Economic Development Corporation and the Rutland Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Our initial focus is going to be on connecting our students here to internships and other experiential learning opportunities in the region,” said Kelley Beckwith, director of student success.
Beckwith said the plan is three-pronged: building workplace readiness skills; getting hands-on learning through internships; and increasing community engagement to improve the economic and social interaction between the university and surrounding communities.
The partnership is part of a larger school-wide project to bolster student success and retention, which is being supported by a $2.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Title III Strengthening Institutions Program. The grant was awarded to Castleton last year.
“We’ve known that students really value that hands-on experience,” Beckwith said. “Castleton has a lot of first-generation college students. I think, even maybe more so for them, these are opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise have that really help them connect what they learned in the classroom to what they’ll need in the workplace.”
Beckwith said the school has set a goal for 80% of its students across all programs and disciplines to graduate with “significant experiential learning experience.”
CEDRR Executive Director Lyle Jepson said the new partnership is an opportunity for the Rutland region to re-engage with the university.
Under former-Castleton president David Wolk, the school and the city launched a 10-year plan to meaningfully connect students with businesses in downtown Rutland and the greater Rutland region. That plan included locating residence halls, art galleries and an office of entrepreneurship in the city.
But as financial woes forced the Vermont State College System to trim budgets across the board, those plans were scaled back.
“We feel that this is another opportunity to do that,” Jepson said.
Kim Rupe, business development and community engagement manager for CEDRR, said the organization is looking how to most effectively connect students and employers.
“I think one of the biggest components that we will play in this is pitching to employers who haven’t necessarily had internship programs in the past, and showcasing the value there for the employer and students,” she said.
Rupe added that the goal is to help develop a valuable internship for both parties, which in turn will help employers with recruitment and retention efforts moving forward.
Jepson said this new effort fits “hand in glove” CEDRR’s regional marketing initiative.
He said around 30% of Castleton’s students are from out of state and the rest are from Vermont. He wants to find ways to get as many of them as possible to stay after graduation.
“We’ve had declining enrollment in Vermont and particularly in Rutland County,” he said. “We see this as an opportunity to create relationships that will encourage students to stay here and live here and work here well into the future.”
While both Jepson and Rupe acknowledged that the coronavirus pandemic has added a wrinkle to their plans, they are pressing on.
“I don’t think we can wait until COVID ends anymore,” Jepson said. “I think we need to come up with ways to engage students safely and appropriately, and in ways that will benefit businesses and the students.”
Rupe said she thinks interns can bring a much needed influx of energy to businesses right now.
“In a time of COVID, having internships for our local employers brings a sense of energy and creativity from the students’ perspective that can really help a business adapt to the current needs of COVID in a way that they may not have necessarily thought of before,” she said.
Tracee Turnbaugh said her internship at the Vermont Electric Power Company in Rutland prepared her for her current job.
Turnbaugh, who graduated from Castleton in May with a degree in computer information systems, now works in the IT department for Norwich University in Northfield.
Turnbaugh interned at VELCO in summer 2019 and winter 2020. During her time there, she had the opportunity to work on data integration, software development and other related projects.
“I was laser-focused on finding something that was relevant to what I wanted to do professionally … and also would provide the most opportunities for me to learn as much as I possibly could during the internship,” she said.
While not all internships are paid, Turnbaugh’s was. She believes it’s important that students be compensated for their labor.
“It doesn’t have to be spectacular pay, but it’s something,” she said. “It’s like a token (that says), ‘We value you.’”
According to Beckwith 29% of internships in 2019 were paid and 71% were unpaid. She added that businesses are encouraged to offer pay if possible.
Turnbaugh said entering the job market in the middle of a pandemic was “a scary place to be,” but said her time at VELCO was “instrumental” in giving her the experience she needed to land a job in her field.
Shana Louiselle, a spokesperson for VELCO, said the company has long maintained a “direct relationship” with both Castleton and CEDRR’s predecessors.
“They’ve always been willing to engage with us and listen to what the needs are from a workforce development stance,” she said.
She said she thinks that the new partnership is a critical step forward.
“We’re marrying an entity that knows the region’s needs with an organization that has those people assets.”
Louiselle is vice president of the board of directors for CEDRR as well.
“VELCO’s had the opportunity to provide internship roles to Castleton University students like Tracy, who are able to find real value in the work that they do, connect it to a career path and … get hired as a full time employee after they graduate,” she said.
Louiselle said VELCO has had a several interns go on to have careers in the company.
“It’s kind of the tangible evidence of how that effective community engagement can be,” she said.
“When I think about that kind of regional conversation that’s happening, we want Vermont to be a place to live, work, play and thrive,” she said. “And we need our youth to recognize their value to that to the state and hopefully take that into consideration when they make decisions on whether or not they’re going to stay in Vermont.”