College students often seek summer internships with government agencies to gain public-sector experience and bolster their resumes. But instead of losing those students when they return to school, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Dairy Program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture has harnessed the power of virtual technology to keep those interns — and their skills — onboard year-round.
Interns at AMS Dairy do their work remotely, from locations all over the U.S., stretching from Bellingham, Wash., to Washington, D.C. Through the use of collaboration software, such as Microsoft’s SharePoint and Live Meeting, the agency’s interns work hand-in-hand with staff to complete projects and achieve agency goals.
The program isn’t new. AMS Dairy started the virtual intern program in 2001, but it went largely unnoticed until it was recognized last September by Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Known as the “Bright Ideas” initiative, the honor is part of the Innovations in American Government Awards program, which promotes creative government ventures and partnerships while creating an online environment for innovative ideas.
Dana Coale, deputy administrator of AMS Dairy Programs, explained that with government agencies feeling the effects of decreased funding, employing paid virtual interns has resulted in “significant cost savings” for the agency. “It’s very expensive to bring students here to Washington, D.C., and spend a summer or semester … and then repeat that on a continual basis,” Coale said. “Whereas if we can do that for one summer and then use the skills of that individual for the next two or three years, it certainly has a lot of value.”
When the program launched in 2001, communicating with interns was done through conference calls and emails. Since most projects assigned to the interns were technology-focused, they didn’t need constant interaction to complete their assignments.
More than a decade later, not much has changed, except for the technology. Instant messaging and videoconferencing over the Web are now the preferred forms of communication. To avoid security, connectivity or communication issues, interns are assigned a government-issued laptop computer and access the federal computer network directly to communicate with staff, according to Sarah Buikema, product marketing specialist with AMS Dairy.
The five virtual interns currently working with AMS Dairy have a variety of skill sets. Daman Wandke, based in Bellingham, Wash., is a 508 Compliance expert. Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act requires federal agencies to make electronic and information technology accessible to people with disabilities.
Wandke is currently working on making changes to the AMS Dairy website content to ensure it is compliant with Section 508. For example, images on a website must have alternative text embedded, so if a person with a visual impairment is surfing the Web, special software will let them know a picture is present and describe what it contains.
Other interns are experts in mobile app development and graphic design and Web development. The team works together on technology projects based off the format and guidelines provided by the USDA information technology staff. In addition, AMS Dairy has been able to assist students with disabilities and allow them — through the virtual intern program — to develop a skill set, according to Coale. Working remotely with technology allows the disabled students to stay in an environment where they have easy access to the resources they need, but still gain professional experience and develop their resumes.
The virtual intern program has also been handy in the case of technical emergencies. Coale recalled a situation years ago where the AMS Dairy staff had a computer database with an issue they couldn’t solve. Staff reached out to Malcolm Proctor, one of their virtual interns attending North Carolina A&T State University for help. Proctor logged in and solved the problem.
“He was definitely worth his weight in gold in that situation,” Coale recalled. “When he graduated, it so happened we had an opening. We hired him and he’s doing a fantastic job.” Proctor now serves as the program’s database administrator.
Coale added that keeping interns on long term depends on what the agency’s needs are at the time and more importantly, what the students need. If they graduate and move on, AMS provides them with a reference. Or, like in the case of Proctor, if there is a job opening and a student has a particular skill set the agency needs, they can be converted to an employee.
The virtual intern program really hasn’t had many difficulties or challenges over the years, according to Coale. Becuase many of the projects interns work on are technology-oriented and worked on individually, there’s not really a need to have those interns in the office.
Buikema agreed, although she noted that staff is cognizant that team building and camaraderie can take a bit more effort with people on the team working remotely.
AMS Dairy staff members try to catch up with interns face-to-face whenever possible. If a virtual intern has a meeting in Washington D.C., Coale said she’ll try to make sure they come into the office for a visit. In addition, if AMS Dairy personnel are traveling in the vicinity of one of the virtual interns, they try to get together.
But Coale was adamant that she hasn’t encountered any downside to not having interns physically be in the office and called the virtual intern concept a “hidden gem” that many government agencies could benefit from.
“We’re giving students an opportunity to develop skills they need and at the same time, we’re able to save money and get a lot of projects done that we probably would really have had to make major cuts in other areas in order to complete,” Coale said.
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.