Open The Door To Interns

By Victoria Andrews

The May 2015 issue of PRB featured a success story about how the Parks Department in Kent, Wash., tapped into a motivated and passionate volunteer workforce—high school students. Last summer, the department took it a step further and hired five local teens as interns to serve in the Youth Environmental Service Corps (YES).

The teens joined the Green Kent Partnership, a group of volunteers—along with public and private agencies—whose long-term goal was to conserve and restore more than 1,300 acres of forested parks and other natural areas to healthy, functioning habitats.

What They Learn
How can teens benefit from an internship? Selected from a strong candidate pool, the YES Corps (four boys, one girl) ranged from incoming sophomores to seniors. By coincidence, all four Kent high schools were represented, plus a Tacoma academy. They began their six-week internships in July and worked at five forested parks, learning:

·         Teamwork

·         The difference between native and invasive plants at each site

·         Giving thorough safety briefings

·         Accurate progress reporting on work logs

·         Best-management practices to control invasive plants

·         Leadership skills by rotating as crew leads for the day

·         Reporting their experiences in a PowerPoint presentation to park staff members on the final day.

The Benefits To Park Departments
How can professional staff benefit? Every new program requires planning to establish goals, policies, work schedules, and budgets. And yes, untrained interns have a learning curve. But with limited summer jobs for teens, the students were all motivated to do well in their first (and for all but one) paid positions.

Once they grasped the basics on invasive plant removal, the interns performed as capably as professional contracted crews doing similar work. At minimum wage, the department’s cost was far less than the $1,000/day rate contract crews charge. And, being teens, they loved competing with each other to see who could clear their blackberry thicket first or produce the longest ivy chain. With staff oversight, the team performed field work under the watchful eye of another intern.

Grant funds from the King Conservation District have helped underwrite a Green Kent Partnership intern for the past three years. The position provides a variety of real-world urban forestry and leadership experiences to a college student or recent graduate in natural-resource management or a related field.

Surprising Career Options
Many college programs have internship requirements. Earning wages along with credits is a win-win for students. It’s also a foot in the door, as park staff can gauge the intern’s suitability for hire after graduation.

Students in community-college programs often assume they will eventually work in remote areas, but urban forestry and park operations can open up new and surprising career options.

This year’s Green Kent intern served as the YES Corps’ daily crew lead, becoming a combination camp counselor and mentor. In the fall, he transitioned into fulfilling other aspects of the position;

·         Supported community volunteer events

·         Compiled photo documentation

·         Maintained the tool inventory

·         Gained experiencein GIS mapping

·         Conducted outreach activities

·         Assisted with special projects

·         Participated in planning and site meetings.

Bringing In Interns
What are the caveats when considering interns? The YES Corps worked four hours daily, so meal breaks were not required. But because one intern was 15, all of the interns were provided with a required 10-minute paid rest break after two hours of work (instead of three hours, had they all been 16 or older). Check your state’s labor and industries department for other specific limitations, including:

·         School and non-school hours that minors may work

·         Driving—and passenger—restrictions (Note: You may not ask whether the intern has a driver’s license in the interview, only if he or she has reliable transportation.)

·         Potentially hazardous duties

·         Paid vs. unpaid: There are limited circumstances in which unpaid student internships are allowed and exempt from the Minimum Wage Act.

The Perks
What did the interns learn? At the conclusion of the YES Corps’ internship, individual exit interviews revealed that all five students had gained insights about themselves. What they enjoyed most was being part of a team. They came to understand what a healthy ecosystem is, what it should look like, and how their work fit into the restoration picture. They loved edible berries too: “First eat, then weed!”

All agreed it was hard work, but satisfying.  One said, “Before, when I’d look at a park, I’d just see green. Now I cringe when I see ivy.” Another echoed, “I never looked at the greenbelt near my house before, and I view it all differently now. There’s bindweed and blackberries everywhere. I’m going to be a Green Kent support steward this fall so I can do this with my girlfriend, who’s already a support steward.”

Room For Improvement
What did we learn? When asked what we as staff members could do differently, the teens suggested less time in the office on orientation day, saying they learned the safety talk and restoration phases more easily when in the field. The talks were far more relevant then.

The interns all requested more team-building ice-breakers to get to know each other faster, which will definitely be implemented after seeing how quiet the interns were the first week. By the end, they joked constantly while working and were eager to stay friends. Being at the same site for a week could get boring, so one suggested “more competition, like who can get to the fence fastest.” Of course, food was mentioned, too: “Maybe a potluck—everyone brings food to share.”

As for the college intern, we plan to recruit earlier next year to ensure the best possible candidate pool. By the time grant funds were approved and the position was posted, most of the potential candidates from our community college had already secured internships. After one round of interviews, we expanded the search to four other colleges and were fortunate to hire a new graduate with an Associate of Science degree, who felt the position might help him determine what he wanted to do next. He has now decided to pursue a four-year degree in environmental studies. 

We considered excluding a college intern in the next grant application because of our recruiting frustrations, but having the intern serve as crew lead for the teens freed up other staff time. Our Green Kent lead spent two hours every Monday with the interns, introducing them to the park they would be working in all week, explaining the restoration progress to date, identifying key plant species, and demonstrating specific invasive plant removal techniques.

The college intern took over from there and delivered work logs and photos each day. He transported tools to the worksite, and the team either loaded piles onto a flatbed or left them in an easy-access area for later pickup by park staff.

In six weeks, the summer interns covered nearly 50,000 square feet, removing 63 cubic yards of invasive species to protect countless native plants. In doing so, they became part of our growing community of advocates for the responsible management of public land. We consider them a success story and can’t wait for the next season of new faces.

Victoria Andrews is the Special Programs Coordinator for the Kent Parks, Recreation & Community Services in Washington. Reach her at 253 856-5113 or