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‘Five great educational systems working together to benefit our students and our economy’

“You drive by them all the time. These big buildings – lots of cars parked out front. And you may know someone’s cousin who works there, but you don’t really know what that company does.”

Crystal Folger-Hawks, program director for Surry-Yadkin Works

Building awareness is one of the goals of Surry-Yadkin Works, a collaborative internship program that connects students, businesses, educational entities, and government. It’s the first community-based internship program of its kind in North Carolina.

“What we know is if students are learning about these programs while they are in high school, they understand what opportunities are available to them, and they’re more likely to stay here,” said program director Crystal Folger-Hawks.

Spanning two counties, Surry-Yadkin Works includes Surry County Schools, Yadkin County Schools, Elkin City Schools, Mount Airy City Schools, and Surry Community College.

“There are five great educational systems working together to benefit our students and our economy in this region,” said Myra Cox, superintendent of Elkin City Schools.

Watch the video below to hear Travis Reeves, superintendent of Surry County Schools, describe the program.   

Travis Reeves, superintendent of Surry County Schools. Mebane Rash/EducationNC

David Shockley, president of Surry Community College, described the program as “a regional effort to create work-based opportunities for our students by creating a unifying organization for companies seeking interns.”

The program has dual goals of supporting business development as well as supporting student development, said Folger-Hawks.

How we got here

In January 2020, representatives from Surry and Yadkin counties visited Mark Story to learn more about K-64 in Catawba County. 

K-64 is a program created by the Catawba County Commissioners whose mission is “to foster the collaboration between education, government, and business to develop, attract, and retain a future-ready talent pool to meet growing workforce demands and ensure a bright economic future for Catawba NC.”

Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Although similar to K-64, Surry-Yadkin Works was driven by the education systems of the two counties.

“Surry County Schools had a similar model to Surry-Yadkin Works, but it only served one school system,” said Folger-Hawks.

After seeing the success of the program in Surry County Schools, Surry Community College pushed to make the program a collaborative effort across the other four public school systems in its service area. Surry-Yadkin Works launched on January 1, 2021 after six to eight months of planning.

With a three-year commitment from both Surry and Yadkin county commissioners to fund Surry-Yadkin Works, as well as a $100,000 anonymous donation, the educational entities hit the ground running.

How the program works

Before students are hired, Surry-Yadkin Works builds relationships with businesses across the two counties, learning about available positions and identifying current employee needs of the company.

The next step is recruiting students.

“If a company says they need a student who has Microsoft Office skills or Adobe skills — that’s how we start advertising and recruiting students based on the company’s needs,” said Folger-Hawks. 

Once students who match the skills and education needed by a company are identified, Surry-Yadkin Works interviews those students. The company then conducts the final interview. 

Since its launch in January 2021, Surry-Yadkin Works has placed 50 interns in a variety of sectors.
Courtesy of Surry-Yadkin Works

The company always makes the final decision. There could be a dozen students applying for the same internship, but the company has the final say.

“That’s key because the company is the employer. The company has to buy in and has to make the decision of who is going to be the best fit for their business,” Folger-Hawks said. 

Before they begin their internship, students receive industry-recognized soft-skills training from Surry Community College. Some of those skills include basics such as time management, employer expectations, and workplace communication.

Once training is complete, students begin their internship. The program requires students to work in 3-hour blocks for a minimum of 12 hours per week.

Throughout their internship, students continue to receive training from Surry Community College to bolster their soft skills. Those trainings can include a behavior assessment, public speaking, personal finance, and so on. Any textbooks and training required are provided at no cost to the interns. 

Earning money while gaining career awareness

“I knew what I was going to do from a very young age,” said Matthew Gillespie, Surry Early College High School Design student and intern at Interlam. “Even in kindergarten, I would tell people I was going to be an inventor. I now want to be an engineer — I want to create things.”

Matthew Gillespie, Surry Early College HS Senior at his Computer-Aided Design internship at Interlam Design. Courtesy of Surry-Yadkin Works

Gillespie may have always known that he wanted to create things, but he didn’t necessarily know the opportunities that were available to him in his own county.

“I’d never even heard of Interlam before my internship,” he said. 

Working in the Computer-Aided Design (CAD) division at Interlam, Gillespie said he’s gained valuable experience that he may not have otherwise received if he had stayed in his previous part-time job.

“I had never even worked on CAD before this internship. I learned about it on-site and learned pretty quickly. And that’s a big deal. Going into engineering or design you will need these skills.”

And because Interlam is a designer and manufacturer, Gillespie has seen his designs come to life.

“At Interlam, I’ve been able to not only draw it out but also visualize it and then put that program into the machine,” Gillespie said. “Having this experience is just another tool in my toolkit for the future.”

Beyond gaining experience and awareness of opportunities in their counties, students can also earn money, which isn’t always a common practice for high school internship programs.

“That’s a real game-changer,” said Folger-Hawks. 

Out of 50 interns this spring, 49 have been paid an hourly rate by their employers. Recently Folger-Hawks received a phone call from the nonprofit who employed the only unpaid intern.

“The company was so impressed by the intern that they found a way to pay her as well,” said Folger-Hawks. 

In addition to their hourly rate, Surry-Yadkin Works pays students a $125 stipend for travel on top of a $125 monthly stipend to be used at their discretion. If an intern does not have transportation to their place of employment, Surry-Yadkin Works will use the student’s $125 travel stipend and coordinate with the school system to provide bus transportation.

Pre-apprenticeship element

Internships are not the only opportunity for students through Surry-Yadkin Works. Starting in January 2021, 13 Surry-Yadkin Works interns began a pre-apprenticeship program at Northern Regional Hospital.

“A pre-apprenticeship is an exploratory experience before committing to an apprenticeship. This allows the student and employer to ‘try each other out’ and make sure it’s a good fit. The pre-apprenticeship is a short duration,” said Folger-Hawks.

Pre-apprenticeships are different from full apprenticeship programs, which are part of the U.S. Department of Labor’s Apprenticeship program and the state’s ApprenticeshipNC program through the North Carolina Community College System. Students selected for the full apprenticeship program have the opportunity to earn their associate degree in Nursing at Surry Community College tuition-free.

If a student chooses to further their studies after completing their associate degree, they can apply for Northern Regional Hospital’s tuition reimbursement program. The hospital contributes $10,000 toward the student’s tuition (per degree) as long as the student continues to work one shift per pay period.

And that’s Carrie McKeaver’s goal. 

During a recent visit to Surry Community College, EdNC heard from McKeaver, a Surry Central High School student. McKeaver is currently in the pre-apprenticeship program, having previously earned her Certified Nursing Assistant certification at Surry Community College. 

A Feb. 24 meeting at Surry Community College to learn more about Surry-Yadkin Works.
Left to right: Catherine Truitt, State Superintendent of Public Instruction; Carrie McKeaver, Surry-Yadkin Works intern; Matthew Gillespie, Surry-Yadkin Works intern; Thomas Stith, president of the North Carolina Community College System. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

McKeaver works in the day surgery department, cleaning instruments before surgery, working the front desk, and helping schedule appointments. 

When asked about her future goals, McKeaver said, “I hope to be chosen for the full apprenticeship program. I want to go to Surry Community College. I want to be an RN. This internship has helped me realize I enjoy working in a hospital setting. I’d heard about the different departments in the hospital before, but I really wasn’t sure what procedures they did. I learned a lot more about that during my internship.” 

Carrie McKeaver, a pre-apprentice Certified Nursing Assistant at Northern Regional Hospital in the Day Surgery Department. She is cleaning and preparing scopes for procedures. Courtesy of Surry-Yadkin Works

Starting this summer, Surry-Yadkin Works will add two more pre-apprenticeship programs in masonry and maintenance.

“We’re working with Surry County Schools right now to do an apprenticeship program in their maintenance department for students who are graduating high school this spring,” Folger-Hawks said. 

Benefits across the region

The benefits of Surry-Yadkin Works are far-reaching — from building awareness to building a pipeline of skilled workers.   

“What is amazing is that these students have become part of a company that they never even knew existed,” said Folger-Hawks. “And the students say things like, ‘Well, at our company, we believe….’ And I think, look at this, they are saying things like our company — because they feel part of the team.”

Victor Hall, a senior at East Surry High School and a custodian intern at Dobson Elementary School.
Courtesy of Surry-Yadkin Works

For a student who may not know the opportunities available, Surry-Yadkin Works can provide clarity and direction. That’s been the case for one intern in particular, Folger-Hawks said.

“I have one student who is a custodian with the school system. Before, he had no direction, but this internship gave Victor a pathway to follow. He has loved his position so much. In fact, the head custodian is retiring and because Victor has done such a good job, they want him to apply for the head custodian position,” said Folger-Hawks.  

Beyond experience for students, there’s also the economic impact. 

In a previous press release, Shockley said, “This partnership will help our economic developers because they can tout the program to help attract and maintain businesses in our region.”

So, how do you replicate Surry-Yadkin Works across the state?

The Surry-Yadkin Works program is very easy to replicate if everyone is willing to work together for the benefit of the community. The community college, public schools, county commissioners, businesses and industries, and most importantly, the students, must all be willing to become actively engaged in the process of creating career opportunities for the next generation. Each entity must be willing to sacrifice so the entire community can successfully create career opportunities and economic growth for everyone. 

David Shockley, president of Surry Community College.
Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.