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Digi-Key partners with Lincoln High School in Thief River Falls

Thief River Falls' High School senior Aaron Hustad works with Digikey's Tracy Hoglin on a project Monday. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald1 / 2
Julia Jones and Connor Barnes are Thief River Falls' high school seniors that are working part-time at Digi-Key for school credit as well as wages. Photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald2 / 2

THIEF RIVER FALLS -- High school senior Julia Jones spent part of her class time last week getting paid to work at electronic components distributor Digi-Key.

Not too bad for a school day.

Jones and three other Lincoln High School seniors are earning school credit and money through Education Beyond the Classroom, a recent partnership between the school and the biggest employer in Thief River Falls.

In their final semester of school, they work three hours a day at Digi-Key to get a taste of the working world.

Students say the program is better than taking unnecessary electives and it's a good way to get a foot in the door. But it's also part of the school's bigger focus to expose students to as many post-secondary options as possible, said Principal Shane Zutz. About 25 percent of students expected to graduate this spring have an internship right now, he said.

"By getting them into that professional environment (at Digi-Key), it may spark them to go to school to further their education, too," he said.

The class will be offered second semester every year. He wants 12 to 20 students to participate because that's the number who say they're not going to college, he said.

"But at Digi-Key they can make, say $16 an hour to start and have health insurance," he said.

Job experience

On their March 16 visit students spent time updating Web addresses on datasheets.

During the semester, students help process inbound packages and verify parts, work with data sheets and create and maintain inventory records. This gives students an idea of what it's like to work at the company, which currently has a total 3,300 employees and is always striving recruit more as a large employer in a small town.

"We wanted to find something that would put their skills right to use and help us out," said Nichole Engelstad, information management media coordinator.

While the actual job is a bit easier than what a hired employee would do -- their short working time required easy-to-learn tasks -- students still get evaluated on their job performance, which determines whether they earn two high school credits for the program.

Students are treated no differently than regular Digi-Key employees, said Linda Brateng, manager of human resources learning and development.

They go through the standard interview process, take a pre-employment drug test, follow dress codes and have to go to work if school is canceled, she said. But because they've gone through the full testing process, they also have the opportunity to work at Digi-Key this summer, she said.

Appealing alternative to electives

Although each student plans on attending college, they were still interested in trying the class, they said.

The best part is that it's a job that goes beyond fast food work, they said.

"It'll look really good on a resume," said Jones, who plans on attending cosmetology school.

Ian Herzberg, who plans on attending culinary school in Minneapolis, summed it up for the others -- the class is a better use of time than an elective they're not interested in.

"It's not going to school for a boring class," he said. "You can earn the money for something you can actually use."

Creating the program was a natural decision, said Zutz.

Educators wanted more opportunities for students and Digi-Key is constantly seeking new workers, he said. So, Zutz and a career and tech education advisory committee suggested the idea to the company, which has warmly embraced it, he said.

In a blue-collar community where about 40 percent are first-generation college students, a program like this can mean a lot, he said.

"Kids need connections," he said. "They don't always care if they make a million bucks. They want to go to places where they're connected and have relationships."

Jennifer Johnson

Jennifer Johnson is the K-12 education reporter for The Grand Forks Herald.  Contact her if you have any story ideas or tips and visit www.grandforksherald.com. 

(701) 787-6736
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