IMMOKALEE - This summer, when so many businesses are closed and unable to hire, as an essential business, 15 students in our community have been provided with paid internship opportunities through the Taste of Immokalee (TOI) Summer Internship Program. These are students who have completed the Taste The Impact Apprenticeship program and are now gaining hands-on business experience as they run the company, working alongside business executives in areas including marketing, accounting, sales, operations, human resources, and customer service.
This innovative approach to learning is equipping high school students with the soft skills that today’s employers are seeking, such as teamwork and collaboration, communication, professionalism, and networking. Regardless of the career paths the interns eventually choose, these are skills that are crucial in the marketplace, yet so difficult for youth to gain without hands-on experience.
The impact of COVID-19 posed many new challenges this summer. Students learned resiliency as they adapted to working from home and conducing meetings through web conferencing tools like Zoom. The Internship Program curriculum also had to undergo modifications to adapt.
As an essential business that provides goods to retail outlets including Publix, purchase orders were still coming in and online orders still needed to be fulfilled. The normal in-person office hours were replaced with scheduled online hours through Zoom, without compromising customer and partner communication, order fulfillment or team collaboration and brainstorming.
During this time, our student interns were tasked with solving the same problems and challenges that other companies were facing during COVID:
• How do we stay relevant to our customer base when we can no longer conduct in-store promotions and events throughout the community?
• How can we fulfill online orders when it may not be safe to work in the office with our colleagues?
• How can our HR department gather the necessary documents from new hires, when we cannot meet in person to verify required documents, when HR and Employment Compliance Law prohibits email and fax?
Rarely are high school students given the opportunity to not only be exposed to such real-world business problems, but also challenged to solve the same issues that have caused many small businesses to close during the 2020 pandemic. But our students rose to the occasion and kept the business operational without missing a step.
For example, TOI’s student interns working in the HR and operations departments researched best practices from other companies such as Amazon, Publix, and Walmart, and created a COVID19 Manual for the company. They identified the safest ways to conduct business when in-office presence was necessary, and trained fellow interns with the new protocol, which included:
In addition, summer interns are also gaining valuable knowledge through online workshops conducted by board members and community partners. Topics include Resume Writing, Networking, Interviewing, and Financial Literacy.
Professional guidance and hands-on learning are also provided in the areas of sales, marketing, and accounting. Mentorship has been provided by board members as well as former TOI founders and graduates including:
• Christopher Bances, one of the original TOI founders and a UF graduate, is leading the marketing team. Christopher earned his BS degree in advertising and has been sharing his knowledge and skills with the young interns.
• Elias Cuevas, a TOI graduate and now a junior at Saint John’s University in Minnesota, returned to TOI to intern and provide leadership. As a political science major, Elias’ knowledge in government regulation and compliance has been unbelievably valuable to the company this summer.
So often we are asked what led us to start this innovative approach to learning. When we looked at what was needed in the community, our goal was to equip students with the business and soft skills needed to become hirable in new professions and successful in their career paths. When we look at the program that has been created and the student success stories, we are proud to say that mission goal continues to be achieved.