ROCK FALLS – The career paths of Rock Falls residents Derek Flannery and Mary Kay Whaley were moving in very different directions before they intersected through internships at the Rock Falls Chamber of Commerce.
Flannery, 19, who went through the program this past summer, is just starting out in the workforce. Whaley, now 68 and retired, did her internship back in 2005, after being forced to start over.
Although Flannery is young and studying full time at Sauk Valley Community College, his ambition could classify him as a non-traditional student. That's because the Rock Falls High School grad seems to have an affinity for hands-on training.
He is studying industrial engineering with an emphasis on business management. To accelerate his career development, Flannery also has been working about 30 hours a week as an assistant production manager at Rotary Airlock, a Rock Falls Industrial Park manufacturer, for the past 3 years.
"I wanted to mix my technical knowledge with management skills," Flannery said. "I get to manage a process – things like efficiencies and quotas – but I also get to deal with people in this setting."
Whaley worked at RB&W and Reliant Fasteners for 24 years and was an AFL-CIO member. While a desire for more education always stayed with her, Whaley figured her career was winding down and she would soon retire from the manufacturing life she had always known. But in 2002, Reliant closed and her plans would have to change. She took a temporary job as a union outreach counselor.
"That was a great opportunity, but it only lasted a year," Whaley said. "Here I was in my latter 50s, had a high school diploma and was coming off a pretty serious industrial accident that took me out of the workplace for 2 years."
Whaley assessed her situation and decided to listen to that voice in her head – she went to Sauk to pursue an associate degree in management.
Genesis of the program
Bland has been at the Rock Falls Chamber for 8 years and launched the internship program shortly after her arrival. Only about seven people have gone through the program since its inception. Participation has been sporadic, but she believes the program's success is important on several levels.
"What I really believe is this is a great opportunity to get involved and help the community," she said. "Maybe we can keep more people here by helping them personally."
The flexibility was an important aspect of the program, in the hopes of attracting people in many types of situations. Ideally, the intern would work 3 ot 6 months, but it's not an absolute.
"This was designed to be a pretty laid-back internship," she said. "We target high school and college kids, employees who were let go and going back to school. They might work 1 day a week, only a month, or do some of the work at home."
Target areas are management, graphics, Web design, human resources, marketing and general administrative work. With high school students, the goal is to teach basic skills that involve respect, professionalism and an idea of the expectations of the workforce.
All work is done exclusively for the chamber office. Applicants must go through an interview process.
Bland offers a program prototype of sorts to businesses in the hopes it will catch on elsewhere.
"They can use our materials and basically duplicate the programs," she said. "Sometimes it can be a struggle to get them to understand how it can benefit them."
Bland is working to eventually bring some money to the table for the interns, through the development of a scholarship program.
Adding to the skill set
Flannery's desire to add to his skill set brought him to Bland last summer. He had heard about the opportunity by word of mouth, called Bland and filled out the application.
While the chamber internships are unpaid at this time, the organization's flexibility allowed Flannery to stay in his job at Rotary during the internship.
"The chamber really tailored the internship to my needs, so I didn't care so much that it was unpaid," Flannery said. "It wasn't just busy work, they'll set it up so there are specific things to help in your area of study."
Much of his summer internship was spent working on Summer Splash, a chamber-sponsored festival held on the riverfront. Flannery said he able to hone his skills in communications and marketing through the internship. He took care of vendors and recruited companies and community organizations to get involved in the event, giving him the opportunity to work with large corporations, small businesses and nonprofits.
"I learned a lot about professionalism, how to handle yourself around many different types of people," Flannery said.
Flannery recommends the internship experience, especially for those who are trying to juggle several other things.
"It's a really good option for flexibility," he said. "I worked 45 hours while I did it. They are more focused on how much got done, not how many hours you put in or when you did it. I even made a database for vendors from home."
A new path
While at Sauk, Whaley's curriculum required she do an internship. She started what was supposed to be a 3-month stint with Richard Downey, who was the Rock Falls city administrator at the time.
"Richard told me that someone had offered him an internship that was important in his career development and that he wanted to pay it forward," Whaley said. "It was very hands-on; I had a computer and chair right in his office and saw many of the city's inner workings."
Halfway through, Whaley ran out of work and she was sent to former chamber director Doug Wiersema and Bland to finish her time at the chamber. She said she received training in graphics, communications rewrites, and came away with a big-picture view of the city.
Whaley went on to get her management degree and made her transition from manufacturing complete by landing a job with Hope Life Center in Sterling, a nonprofit Christian-based social services agency. After 2 1/2 years there, Whaley retired and cites "enjoying her grandkids" as the most important skill she refines these days.
She has never forgotten how important her internship was in very uncertain times. She said she would particularly recommend the experience for older people who are trying to transition to something completely different.
"The internship was such a blessing," Whaley said. "I met so many people who made a difference in my life. The experience and contacts I made were so much more important than the money."