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ConAgra recruits nontraditional students for IT internship

IT Jobs for Non-Techies
December 16, 2011

JavaScript was a foreign language to Brian Novacek, and he couldn’t tell you where a website's front and back ends were located. 

But none of that mattered for ConAgra Foods -- an Omaha, Neb., company that produces food brands such as Chef Boyardee, Slim Jim, Hebrew National and Reddi-wip -- when it recruited Novacek for its IT internship program in 2009.  The year-round program, which began in 2008, targets students off the beaten IT track. Coordinators of the internship program say that, no matter the major, they are looking for students with sharp critical thinking and leadership skills. It's not quite "IT for Dummies," but the current interns in the ConAgra IT department are students majoring in finance, journalism, biology, accounting and marketing.

College officials familiar with the program said that at a time when people are forecasting the death of humanities and other nontechnical disciplines, it's refreshing to see large corporations value students in those fields, even for technology-related positions. ConAgra's program is at the forefront of a small but growing trend, says Debra Humphreys, vice president for communications and public affairs for the Association of American Colleges and Universities. 

"This challenges a mistaken notion that liberal education is separate from preparing for work," Humphreys says. "I think this kind of program is on track with what higher education needs to be doing more of to get students prepared for success in the workplace in the 21st century."

Novacek, a spring 2011 graduate in finance from Omaha-based Creighton University, was hired full-time as an associate business systems analyst after his internship. 

“I was a little timid about what to expect since I was not versed in computer science,” Novacek says. “But from there, they presented the opportunity as not needing a development program.”

The ConAgra program recruits students from the greater Omaha area -- mainly from Creighton and the University of Nebraska at Omaha -- who may lack IT backgrounds but have the “soft skills” the company is looking for in future employees, says Scott Tylski, vice president of IT at ConAgra and the internship program coordinator. Most students join the program in their sophomore or junior years.

About 70 or so students have gone through the internship program since ConAgra created it in 2008, with three-quarters or more staying on full-time after graduation, Tylski says. ConAgra aims to have about 35 students graduate from their universities and the program each year, he says. Students work 10 to 20 hours a week during the school year and 40 hours a week during the summers. They make $15 an hour to start. The company’s IT division has about 600 employees.

“We value, probably more than others, people who have leadership characteristics -- who have some of those soft skills,” Tylski says. “And it doesn’t hurt to have some technical background and aptitude, but we want to see the ability for them to learn.”

Tylski says the intern pool is typically half students studying IT-related disciplines, and half studying in other fields. 

B.J. Reed, interim vice chancellor for academic and student affairs and executive associate to the chancellor at Nebraska-Omaha, says companies often want to do specialized training on their own and are seeking graduates who are competent in more broad areas.

“When someone goes into music, they have a different set of values and perspectives than someone with an engineering degree or a political science degree,” Reed says. “ConAgra likes that diversity. They like that you’ve got people with very different orientations coming in and they feel it adds energy and perspective to the work force.”

Jim Bretl, the director of Creighton’s career center, says that ConAgra’s leaders understand that “it’s not just about getting programmers, it’s about getting smart kids who are going to learn.”

Bretl points to Gerritt Schutté, the company’s CIO, who has a diverse educational background himself, with an undergraduate degree in English.  In a meeting about the program a few years ago, Bretl remembers Schutté saying, “I don’t just need coders and programmers, I need thinkers.”

“They want people who can analyze information, who can write and present,” Bretl says. “They’ll teach them the details of the system they have, but it doesn’t matter if the student is an English major or a philosophy major.”

Humphreys says that AACU's recent employer poll shows that many companies are looking for students with a broader base of knowledge -- in fact, 91 percent of those polled asked for exactly that.

The bottom line, says ConAgra's Tylski, is that the company's IT internship coordinators value an undergraduate education, even if it is in the liberal arts.

“We acknowledge that in our field of technology that things change and rapidly,” he said. “We value the ability for people to learn and adapt and not hang their hat on a particular technology.” 

Novacek grew up in Omaha.  He was offered a full-time job with ConAgra a few months before graduation.  Like any other college senior, he said, he had to weigh his options before accepting the position. 

“But it is the perfect choice and I couldn’t be happier,” he said.

 

 

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