Stimulus Dollars Help Students Plan for Future Careers

Justin Menning was pretty sure he wanted to be an accountant. Now the case is settled.

"This is actual hands-on experience with what I want to do when I graduate from college," the University of Central Missouri junior said. "This is the first time that I've gotten to experience this kind of work, and actually do it, and I do enjoy it."

Kalia Newton intended to major in finance at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

"Now I'll be a double major. I'll change my major next year to nursing as a second major," Newton said.

Deraan Washington spent last summer working at a restaurant. Now she's learning marketing psychology.

"It has definitely broadened my horizons and made me look into different things," she said.

All three are spending their summers getting their new career experiences thanks to federal stimulus dollars.

That's because Missouri is using a portion of its funding from the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act on what it's calling the Next Generation Jobs Team. Menning, Newton and Washington are among the 6,500 students between the ages of 16 and 24 working this summer in high-tech jobs around the state, in opportunities that are changing their expectations for their own careers.

It is a critical time in the life of the stimulus plan. Skeptics on both sides of the political divide are finding fault with the Obama administration's bill. Conservatives are saying it was too big while some on the left are arguing for a second stimulus.

As the nation's unemployment rate approaches 10 percent, it is programs like Missouri's that could help determine whether the plan has been a success.

In addition to providing work for the age group hit hardest by unemployment, the program aims to provide job training for students in fields outside what many typically envision when they think of summer jobs.

Menning, the would-be accountant, spent last summer working at a local gym in his hometown of Sedalia, about 100 miles east of Kansas City. This summer, he works in the accounting department of Pro Energy Services, a high-tech consulting firm focusing on alternative energies.

Newton, who got work through the program at a Kansas City health care technology firm called Cerner, said her summer job is superior to work she had last year in a dental office.

"Last year, all I did was answer phones, file patient records, update patient records, call insurance companies," she said. "But now, I get to actually dig into Web sites about birthing centers or about Medicaid or Medicare, actually get to use my brain instead of doing the same thing all day."

The program has been popular. At the beginning of the summer, Missouri had received almost three times more applications than there were slots available.

State administrators see the jobs program as a way to train Missouri's work force for future industries.

"We think it's a great use for this funding, and we think it's going to bear great fruit for the state of Missouri down the line," said John Fougere of the Missouri Department of Economic Development.

"Building a talented pipeline of people and candidates who can work in this field, and work inside this company, is something I'm very interested in," said Julie Wilson, a vice president and Chief People Officer at Cerner, the company in Kansas City where Newton and Washington work.

Cerner is paying its summer employees more than what they're getting from the state of Missouri.

"These interns are coming into our environment and we're asking them to do real work," Wilson said. "This is not simply a training program."

David Wolfram, the human resources director at Pro Energy, which will have eight interns, said his company would have taken many more if funding had allowed it.

"We'll get a lot of things accomplished with some good kids that we might not have been able to do this summer," he said.

But it is a short-term fix. Stimulus money will not be around forever, and the jobs program is only eight weeks long.

While many will head back to school in the fall, they'll have to look for jobs again upon graduation and hope that their experience this summer will help to open some doors in a field where they now have experience working.

"This was a test to see if this was really what I wanted to do when I graduated from college," said Menning. "And I do like it."