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<p>PORTLAND, Ore. – Cliff Dias admits he’s ready to hire the four interns currently working at Portland Teachers Credit Union. “I would put any of them to work today if they would want a full-time job,” said Dias, president and chief executive officer of the largest credit union in Oregon and the second largest in the Pacific Northwest ($1.2 billion in assets, 145,000 members). The only problem is that the interns are only 14 and 15 years old. In a program described as one of only two in the United States – the other is in Chicago – students from De La Salle North Catholic High School are working at businesses throughout the Portland area with their earnings going to pay for their tuition at the private school. Portland Teachers is one of two credit unions in the area that have signed on to the school’s corporate internship program. The other is Advantage Northwest Federal Credit Union ($22.5 million in assets, 4,100 members), formerly Oregon Rails FCU. “These are just top-notch kids,” said Joellen Chamberlain, president and CEO of Advantage. “They work for us, they all play sports, they’re all good students. They make every minute count. “They can’t be kids,” she added with a laugh. De La Salle is a new school which began last fall with a freshman class of 71 students from the city’s lower-economic strata. Eventually, De La Salle hopes to become a full four-year high school while limiting each year’s class to about 70 students. Under the corporate internship program, four students are hired by businesses to fill full-time entry level positions. Each student works 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. one day a week with each student rotating a Monday shift. “Our goal is to try to provide an education that wouldn’t normally be accessible to this population in north to northeast Portland,” explained Mike Jacobson, director of the school’s corporate internship program. “Ultimately, our mission is to provide this education that they normally wouldn’t financially have access to.” Tuition at the private school is $2,000 a year. Working at area companies, the students’ earnings are applied to their tuition. Companies involved pay $17,500 for their services. “I look at this as an investment in the credit union and not as an expense,” Dias said. “A lot of people look at payroll as an expense. It probably is in most cases. With these kids, it’s an investment. “I think it’s money well spent,” he added. “It’s an intern program that is well worth participating in. I’m convinced, too, that at some point, whether it’s three, four, five or six years from now, we’re going to be competing with other companies for these kids. Everybody wants good kids.” Chamberlain said her credit union employed the students over the holidays when school was out, allowing them to earn their own spending money. She said she was considering keeping one student on during the summer. Chamberlain admitted she was somewhat apprehensive about the program when she was first approached. “Having raised a teenager, I was a little on the leery side if they could do everything,” she said. “But they can. It’s really hard to think that they’re ninth-graders.” Before venturing out into the business community last fall, all 71 students spent two weeks at school doing nothing but preparing for work. “They do nothing but professional training,” Jacobson said. “We go over things as basic as a handshake and eye contact. We go through basic computer skills and professional dress.” At Portland Teachers, students are being treated just like any other new employee. They go through the new employee orientation to become familiar with the credit union, meet the staff and department managers and are then put to work. For 15-year-old student Rashida Saunders, being treated as a regular employee at Portland Teachers means a lot to her. “I like that I am treated like an adult,” she said. “My supervisor has put trust in me and that means a lot.” Dias said students begin in lending services to support front-line lenders and will eventually be assigned to branches where they will deal with the public. Although the program is only supposed to last from September to June, Dias said he is hopeful that it will be ongoing. School officials will ultimately make that decision. “We’re going to hopefully never have this internship program end,” Dias said. “As far as we’re concerned, they are going to be part of our family forever. As far as I’m concerned, this is a permanent commitment, at least on our part.” Saunders, who works Fridays at Portland Teachers, said the internship is giving her some real world work experience. “I am grateful for this opportunity because it is helping me to gain valuable experience and get a good understanding of what it is like in the real world,” she said. “This is great for me because I get to experience a lot of things that I wouldn’t normally get the chance to do.” Chamberlain said students at her credit union were working behind the scenes but would in the future be involved with calling members to cross sell services. Both Dias and Chamberlain see the program as benefitting the credit unions as well as the students. “I personally believe so strongly that our future is in our children,” Dias said. “I want to do everything I can as CEO here to get involved with kids. This internship is just a unique opportunity in that we’re not going to their classrooms, they’re coming to our classroom. We get to work with them one-on-one. They get to go to the different departments and get a variety of exposure to a business environment which a lot of kids just don’t get. They do a good job in the academics and the theory but there’s nothing like hands-on working with a company.” Jacobson agreed. “It definitely gives us an opportunity to expose them to a world they might not have access to and to broaden their horizons,” he said. “It’s an amazing opportunity for these students.” Whether the students will be inspired to pursue a career in the credit union industry is too early to tell. “They’re freshmen, so they have four more years (of high school),” Dias noted. “But that’s when you want to get people into a business environment, not when they’re done with college or during a summer job from college. You want to get them in there when they’re freshmen and sophomores. “I’m hoping that I’m preparing them for life after college,” he added. “What I’m hoping is to help influence them or prepare them for their first job. A lot of kids come out of college and they really haven’t worked in a business environment. I worked in a lumber yard . it didn’t do much to help me to lead a company.” He compared the internship program between the school and the credit union to Major League baseball and its farm system for promising rookies. “I hope some of them will want to come and work here,” he said. “We can be grooming our next leaders and our next managers. Rather than having to hire from the outside, let’s make a commitment, develop a bench and groom these people.” Dias said that the training the students receive now would help them in the future if they came back to work at the credit union. “They will have already learned about our values, our culture and be familiar with the institution,” he said. “They can be our future leaders.” Chamberlain and Dias both agreed that they have been impressed by the job being done by the teens and by their involvement in school and extracurricular activities. “I don’t know when they have time to be kids,” Chamberlain said. -</p> <p>[email protected]</p>

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