Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Friday, January 9, 2009

Alum connects students, agency in creation of assistantships

Professional assistantships provide valuable training

Professional project assistantships are one form of funding available to some La Follette School students. Funded by the employer, an assistantship usually requires 13 or 20 hours a week of work. In exchange, the student receives a stipend, a tuition waiver and health insurance.

"These professional PAships are a great source of real-world training for our students," says Associate Director Menzie Chinn. "The students see how policy analysis is carried out and how stakeholders use those results."

The positions also give employers a chance to test potential employees, says La Follette School professor Melanie Manion, who built up the professional assistantship program as associate director in 2003-2005. "The agencies, businesses and community organizations get a taste of our students' talents and several students end up landing jobs because of the experience."

Agencies and organizations in the public and private sectors employ La Follette School students as project assistants. For the 2008-09 school year these employers include:

Anyone at a government agency, private business or nonprofit organization who is interested in learning more about offering an assistantship should contact Chinn.

A labor shortage at the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development created the opportunity for two La Follette School students to analyze employment patterns and opportunities.

The opportunity came along late last summer when 2008 alum Brad Campbell recognized that La Follette School students could be engaged temporarily to carry out specialized projects that DWD staff did not have time to complete. The department's Division of Employment and Training needed to collect and analyze employment information and get it into the hands of policymakers, high school students, job seekers and others.

"We needed skilled people to figure out some problems, so I thought of La Follette, and we were able to work out two project assistantships," says Campbell, a research analyst DWD, who initially worked for 1995 La Follette alum Kim Reniero, who is now at the Wisconsin Department of Transportation. She handles performance measurement and process improvement and is the budget analyst for her region.

When she shifted to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Campbell took over the Current Employment Statistics program, which collects data each month on employment, hours and earnings for every Wisconsin county from a sample of nonfarm establishments (including government). The data are considered one of the earliest indicators of the state's economic health in terms of employment.

"The whole CES program is based on a stratified random sample, so professor Carolyn Heinrich's 819 course on advanced quantitative methods has been very useful for me," Campbell says. "I use what I learned in that course every day to look for bias in the numbers we collect from business and government agencies."

The two student project assistants, Katharine Lang and John Moore, are also putting their course work to good use as they analyze employment and demographic data.

Lang is examining the labor shortage in Wisconsin's health-care industry. "The end product will consist of a range of publications targeting different audiences including employers, job seekers, and students," she says. "These documents will provide information that promotes workforce development and addresses the challenges facing the health-care industry."

Moore is looking at the potential for creating jobs in alternative energy and other emerging "green" industries. One product of his labor will be a tool to estimate the number and types of jobs created by certain environmental policies or strategies, especially those relating to alternative energy development and global warming mitigation. "This tool should be helpful for policymakers to consider the labor market impact of legislation like portfolio standards, greenhouse gas emission limits and carbon taxes," Moore says.

They agree with Campbell that the positions are a good introduction to the nitty-gritty of working in a section of a bureau of a division of a state agency. Campbell, Lang and Moore are with the Labor Market Information Section of the Bureau of Workforce Solutions of the Division of Employment and Training. The arrangement is giving the La Follette School as a whole good visibility at the bureau and division levels, Campbell adds, and the students can get a sense of the opportunities around the department.

Lang says the experience has increased her interest in data analysis and she intends to enroll in additional statistics-based courses to further enhance her understanding of utilizing and processing data.

For Campbell, helping to arrange the assistantships is one way of thanking the La Follette School for his experiences there. "I had a fellowship with a tuition waiver and stipend my first year," he says, "and being a La Follette student helped me win an internship at the state Commerce Department doing program evaluation for Fresh Start, Wisconsin's program for the federal Youth Build. While I was there, I saw the posting for the DWD job. The classes in economics and statistics I took at La Follette made me a good candidate."