Audrey Mugisha admits that until two weeks ago, he had barely looked under the hood of a car.

Now the 18-year-old knows how to change the oil in your car. He can rotate your tires, too. And he’s learning what it takes to make it as an automotive technician and mechanic.

“Before I came here, I had no idea about cars,” said the Benson High School senior-to-be as he worked at Woodhouse Ford last week. “It’s a great experience.”

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Audrey Mugisha

Mugisha is one of 28 students taking part in a new internship program being piloted this summer by the Millard Public Schools and the Avenue Scholars Foundation, which provides school mentoring and scholarships for at-risk youths. The internship program’s goal is to expose more high school students to potential career opportunities, particularly in high-demand fields like information technology, specialized trades and auto and diesel technology.

As state economic developers and employers have struggled in recent years to fill the state’s workforce needs, the Millard district and Avenue Scholars saw an opportunity to help Nebraska attract, retain and develop talent in fields where need is particularly high.

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“We do see this as talent recruitment and retention for our state,” said Heather Phipps, Millard associate superintendent. “The brain drain is a real thing.”

Avenue Scholars has long been involved in setting up internships for the 800-plus Omaha-area youths it mentors annually, most of whom come from backgrounds of generational poverty. But those internships have typically been only once the students are out of high school and into some type of post-secondary school or training program.

It became apparent there was a need to begin exposing young people to internships and career options earlier, said Ken Bird, CEO of Avenue Scholars. So Avenue Scholars and the Millard schools decided to team up to start the Youth, Business & Community Internship program.

Businesses with needs in a number of high-demand fields were recruited to provide paid internship opportunities. The four fields selected include auto and diesel, information technology, business, and trades and manufacturing.

Students affiliated with Avenue Scholars as well as students at Millard were then given the opportunity this spring to apply for the internships. To apply, students had to be entering their senior years. Students then went through job interviews with their employers before being selected.

Before the students went on the job, they spent a week taking professional skills courses, where they got tips on how to successfully navigate the working world. The internships started in mid-June.

The learning won’t end with summer. In the fall during their senior years, the students also will be taking a capstone class that will take them deeper into exploration of the career field.

If the program works out as hoped, employers will become connected with future potential workers and stick with them as they continue their educations.

But it’s also accepted that students in the program may also learn that a particular career is not for them. There’s value in that, too.

“For a student, it’s as beneficial to learn what you don’t want to do as what you do want to do,” Phipps said.

The program launched in year one with 28 interns, about one-third from Avenue Scholars and the rest from Millard high schools. Sixteen businesses are taking part.

“It’s win-win,” said Cindy Ciadek, who is coordinating the program for Avenue Scholars. “The students get this amazing exposure to these businesses they didn’t even know existed. And the businesses are all thrilled to have our interns there and to share what they do. They’re hoping they can develop the students’ interest to stay in that field.”

Taking what they have learned, Millard and Avenue Scholars are planning to start earlier next year with hopes of expanding to at least 100 internships. The program also may be expanded to additional school districts. A key will be finding more businesses open to participating.

“It’s a great benefit to us,” said Melissa Stender of Woodhouse Auto Family, which this summer is employing five of the interns at its various dealerships. “We love it.”

Mugisha, whose family came to the United States only three years ago as refugees from Uganda, on Monday reported for the start of the third week of his internship at Woodhouse Ford on North 72nd Street.

He spent the morning helping check in customers at the service desk, writing up work order tickets. He also had Avenue Scholars career coach Carnetta Hardin check in with him, something the coaches do weekly with all the participants to make sure things are going OK.

If Mugisha was looking for further inspiration, he only needed to look at one of his co-workers.

Abdul Bakari is a graduate of Avenue Scholars who through the help of the program recently got his degree in automotive technology at Metropolitan Community College. Now he works full time in the service department at Woodhouse.

“If it wasn’t for her, I never would have gotten out of school,” Bakari said of Hardin.

Hardin said Mugisha was quiet and reserved as he went through his job skills training last month. So she was happy to see him Monday morning on the job and smiling.

“The light bulb has gone on for him,” she said. “Opportunity makes all the difference.”

Along with gaining experience in the automotive world, Mugisha also is hoping to put the money he’s making this summer to good use.

He’s hoping he can buy his own car.

Reporter - Metro News

Henry is a general assignment reporter, but his specialty is deep dives into state issues and public policy. He's also into the numbers behind a story, yet to meet a spreadsheet he didn't like. Follow him on Twitter @HenryCordes. Phone: 402-444-1130.

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