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Portland Business Journal: How a PSU program is putting students to work in local tech companies
Author: Malia Spencer, Portland Business Journal
Posted: August 13, 2018

Read the original story in the Portland Business Journal.

In January 2012, a group of Portland technology executives and officials at the Portland State University Maseeh College of Engineering and Computer Science launched the PSU/PDX Cooperative Education Program to train the next-generation of tech workers.

The program launched with 15 students and six companies. Today, there are 16 industry partners and 129 participating students. Partner companies include Act-On Software, CDK Global, Tripwire, Viewpoint, Jama Software and The Standard. During the 24-month program, students work 20 hours a week for $20 per hour, with the ability for raises, while also taking classes. Students rotate through three different positions at two or more companies.  

There are typically 32 internships for each program cycle. We talked to computer science department chair Warren Harrison to learn more. 

What is the biggest difference you see in students before and after the program? How does that position them for jobs? When they start out, students think creating software products is all about writing computer code and that all software companies are the same. After three Rotations through the program, they’ve had a chance to participate in three functional roles (software development, developer operations and quality assurance) at different companies. When students leave the program, they have a better understanding of the functional role they want to make a career out of, as well as the characteristics they’re looking for from a company. 

Have you seen demand from students and company partners increase? We get information requests from companies on a monthly basis. We advocate controlled growth, so companies that meet our criteria are often put on a waiting list to join.

How can a company get involved? They usually start by contacting me, or one of the members of our steering committee. Admission to the program is based on a vote of the steering committee. The steering committee is made up of representatives from Tripwire, CDK Global, Viewpoint, NWEA, Jama Software and Multnomah County. 

How big a need is there for this program, and has it changed much with shifting workforce needs? From a student standpoint, internships, especially in tech, are essential. Developing software for a commercial product, in a team environment bears little resemblance to homework and class projects. You can only get so far in terms of trying to replicate the environment they will face when they graduate in the classroom.

From a company standpoint, especially for small- and medium-sized ones, internship programs provide a way to communicate to students that they actually exist, and they are a cool place to work. In general, high-quality graduates tend to migrate to companies they’ve heard of: the Googles, Amazons, e-Bays and Intels. Smaller companies, especially those that are not directly consumer-facing, have a hard time attracting the best new graduates. Seventy-five percent of PCEP interns begin their career, after graduation, at a PCEP company. 

And what about for PSU? From Portland State University’s perspective, there are three primary impacts. First, local companies get a chance to interact with our students and discover how truly outstanding they are. For example, before PCEP, Tripwire seldom hired recent college graduates, but after being exposed to the PCEP interns, they have completely changed that custom. Secondly, we have found that we have begun to be a destination of choice for students because of our demonstrable connections with the local software industry. Even students that aren’t able to join the PCEP program benefit from our industrial network. And finally, it has had an impact on our curriculum. Feedback from industry, frequent visits to partner facilities and discussions with our interns has led to changes in our software engineering coverage.