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Leaving the Classroom to Learn Firsthand

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Jim Thomas 
September 30, 2014

Smeltzer septAccording to a survey commissioned by The Chronicle of Higher Education and American Public Media’s Marketplace, employers weigh internships and employment during school more than academic credentials. In fact, the findings indicate that internships are “the single most important credential for recent college graduates to have on their resume.” College interns are important to the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service (IPS), and for several years now, IPS has worked hard to make meaningful internship experiences available to undergraduate and graduate students in Tennessee.

As part of the University of Tennessee’s mandated land grant university outreach program, IPS houses five operating agencies, which all serve a variety of customers throughout Tennessee. The primary work of two of those agencies, the County Technical Assistance Service (CTAS) and the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS), is to provide consulting, training and information to the governments of Tennessee’s 95 counties and 345 incorporated municipalities. CTAS and MTAS are also the primary participants in IPS’s Public Service Internship Program.

Since its establishment in 2011, the IPS internship program has worked with 10 universities in Tennessee to place 85 interns in various city and county governments. Thirty-eight of those interns have been placed in the last year. At each university, designated coordinators make their students aware of the IPS program and assist them in becoming available for an internship. A CTAS or MTAS employee then works to match the intern candidate with a host city or county government. Both agencies constantly look for opportunities in local government where the city or county has need for additional manpower for everyday operations, or for an individual dedicated for a certain period of time to a special project. The objective is to match those needs with a student whose career interests are focused on the public sector, especially local government.

The matching process is set up to mimic a real-life job application and interview process. The intern candidate first submits a letter of interest and a resume, then participates in two interviews—first with the University of Tennessee (UT) employee who identified the possible match, then with the local government official. When the candidate is “hired,” the CTAS / MTAS employee who facilitated the match mentors the intern and has periodic progress discussions with both the intern and the local government official. Occasionally, MTAS and CTAS have employed interns to assist their own staff with special projects on behalf of their city and county customers. Both agencies apply the same criteria for eligibility and the same screening and hiring processes as those candidates being matched with a local government.

For administrative purposes, the intern is technically a UT employee, with compensation (currently, $10.00 per hour) supplied by CTAS and MTAS. The typical internship duration is 12 weeks. If the intern is enrolled in academic classes coincidental to the internship period, the intern is limited to 20 hours’ work per week. Otherwise, the intern can work up to 40 hours per week. MTAS and CTAS use earnings from endowments created by donors for intern compensation purposes.

At the conclusion of the internship, the student must submit a report describing the work they were involved in, explaining their contribution to the work effort and recommending ways to strengthen the program for the future. Because some students are able to apply the internship for academic credit, the report may also be a requirement of their degree program.

Projects that IPS interns work on are as varied as the needs of the host city and county governments – and none of them are “create work” activities. They are substantive projects directed at solving problems, developing new public services, analyzing and reporting on data for decision makers, researching best practices and comparing them to practices employed in the host local government, and more. Some examples illustrate the practicality of the interns’ work:

  • Recently, a student who is completing an MBA with an accounting emphasis worked as an intern for a Tennessee city utility department. He conducted a comparative analysis of natural gas usage and costs of the city’s gas customers with those of nearby commercial users of natural gas supplied by a private vendor. His research will be used by the city utility in planning future business activities of the department. This intern will complete his work in a few weeks and, upon completion, become a full-time employee of that city. Not all the internships translate into full-time employment as fast as this one, but it’s a manifestation of the purpose of the program. 
  • In a Tennessee county government, a graduate-level engineering intern, using GIS knowledge and experience, inventoried all traffic control signage on every school property in the county. He then compared his findings to guidelines in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for school facilities. Using the comparison, the intern prepared a detailed report of needed or upgraded signage on each property and presented his report to various county government officials. 
  • MTAS itself has been the beneficiary of its own earlier work regarding interns. A former Public Management Fellowship participant (an MTAS postgraduate program related to the Public Service Intern Program) now works as an MTAS municipal management consultant. Her postgraduate fellowship consisted of working for four city governments in six-month increments during the two-year fellowship period. Upon completion of the fellowship, she was hired as city manager and served in that capacity for several years before joining MTAS in 2013. 

These are only a few examples of IPS intern success stories. The need for knowledgeable and skilled people to enter into careers in local government continues to grow, and the University of Tennessee continues to help meet that need through its Institute for Public Service Internship Program.


Author: Jim Thomas is the executive director of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS), an agency of the University of Tennessee Institute for Public Service. Established in 1949 by the Tennessee General Assembly, MTAS provides technical advice to cities and towns across the state: their governing bodies, mayors, city managers, city recorders and city department heads. MTAS provides this assistance with consultants who specialize in most areas of municipal operations. Thomas can be reached at [email protected]

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