SNOW HILL — Funding for a popular student internship program has dried up in Worcester County, and officials are attempting to find a suitable replacement program.
While briefing the commissioners on his Fiscal Year 2014 operating budget, Economic Development Director Bill Badger revealed that federal matching funds for the Step Up and Reach for the Stars programs will not be coming to the county this year. Step Up places county students in internship positions with NASA and Wallops Island. Worcester has a long history with Wallops, and the County Commissioners all expressed disappointment that the program is in jeopardy.
“I would be very reluctant to lose that program for us because frankly we’re at the top of the class as far as nationwide internships go because 75 percent of our students who have been involved in this do pursue careers in technology, science and that’s far and above all of the other programs nationwide,” said Commissioner Judy Boggs.
Worcester was set to contribute $77,000 to Step Up as the county’s portion with federal funding generally providing roughly the same amount every year. But even with the federal money falling through, Boggs suggested that the county’s portion be left in the budget for now after learning that Badger’s office hopes to find a substitute program.
“I would like to hold onto that money in the budget in developing an idea there. We had seven very, very outstanding successful internship programs with NASA,” she said. “It appears that, in its wisdom, the federal government has decided to consolidate the programs across the country.”
Badger mentioned a “Plan B” that would seek to replace as much of those internship opportunities as possible. It would be done with county funds and be “Worcester-centric” as opposed to the national Step Up initiative. He hopes to have a suitable alternative in place by this summer and told the commissioners “we’re working on it, we’re close to it.” The Board of Education will also be tapped for assistance in developing the new program.
Along with Boggs, several commissioners underlined the importance of giving students the chance to intern at a NASA facility where they can concentrate on the much-touted Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) field.
“You’re sitting there working with people who have degrees in what you want to become,” said Commissioner Virgil Shockley.
Shockley called the internships “on-the-job training” for high school students with a scientific leaning. By being able to provide internships locally, Shockley said that Worcester is able to combat the perception that there aren’t any well-paying jobs on the shore for young people, especially in technology and engineering fields.
“If you’re going to get these engineers and everything that you need, we have to home-grow them and this is a way of home-growing them,” he said.
Commissioner Merrill Lockfaw agreed and added that the commissioners are facing a tough choice this budget year and will need to decide if there’s room to keep the internships alive without federal matching funds.
“We have to make the decision, is it something we can pick-up and carry or is it something we have to cut,” he stated. “And we certainly don’t want to see that cut.”
While he promised to keep working on a Plan B, Badger told the commission that whether funding might return next year is unknown.