Sentry seeks to open IT co-op to give students hands-on training
Sentry Insurance announced Friday, Jan. 29, it plans to open a new Information Technology (IT) Co-op program to give University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) students hands-on, real-world project experience.
The co-op, located within walking distance of campus at 1105 Main St., Stevens Point, is based on a similar Sentry program in Madison, which opened in 2012. The Stevens Point program will provide opportunities for UWSP students to get real-work experience while pursuing their degree. Co-op employees will work as part of Sentry’s Application Development team in IT, assisting with Java or .Net applications.
“We’re taking a very successful program in place in Madison and copying it here in Stevens Point,” said Jim Stitzlein, Sentry Insurance senior vice president and chief information officer. “Students will work alongside our IT staff, giving them a chance to develop and hone their IT skills.”
“Sentry’s Stevens Point co-op program will employ nine UWSP students who are pursuing a degree in information technology through the duration of their college education,” said Jeremy Kleifgen, Sentry’s director of application development. “Upon completion of that degree, at graduation, they would be eligible for employment at Sentry.”
“If you follow the history of Sentry IT or what we’ve been doing, you’re probably aware that over the past 10 years, we’ve invested significantly into IT in terms of growing our capabilities and the technology that we service at Sentry,” said Jim Frank, Sentry Insurance vice president for IT. “And all that needs people to be successful in deploying that technology.
“As we’ve tried to recruit and get folks to help us grow our technology, we’ve run into some challenges there. If you ask us to describe what the perfect candidate at Sentry would be, we would say ‘well, they probably have a college degree,’” Frank said. “They probably know some very specific technologies we use at Sentry, they maybe have three to five years of (insurance) experience, and love central Wisconsin.”
Sentry IT’s running joke is that finding recruits to fit such a specific bill is ‘a lot like hunting unicorns,” Frank said.
“So, our strategy needed to change on how to invest in central Wisconsin, and grow our own people and our own resources,” he said.
The Sentry co-op with UWSP aims to bridge that gap by creating a paid work program to equip students with the specific list of skills the IT industry requires for successful employees.
Student employees will develop and maintain new websites, services and applications. They will work between 12 and 19 hours per week during the school year and up to 40 hours per week during summer months. Students will receive competitive compensation, amenities and the potential for full-time employment after graduation.
“That’s what this is really about,” said Stitzlein. “It provides these students a chance to work on real projects, gain valuable experience and become great applicants for jobs at Sentry when they graduate.”
The program is expected to be operational by summer 2016 with eight students. The long-term goal is to provide jobs for approximately 25 students. Sentry is renovating a building at 1105 Main St. in downtown Stevens Point.
Sentry repays university for its support
Also on Friday, in conjunction with the new co-op announcement, Sentry donated $34,000 to the UWSP Foundation. The money was part of a Wisconsin IT worker training program that Sentry took part in since 2013. The Wisconsin Fast Forward grant program awarded more than $189,000 to the North Central Workforce Development Board, which allocated the $34,000 to Sentry for IT training programs.
“Sentry eagerly joined the Fast Forward training program,” said Frank. “For us, it wasn’t really about the grant, but the opportunity to collaborate with local education programs, provide technical training and help bolster the IT workforce in central Wisconsin.
“When it came to the Fast Forward program, UWSP hosted the discussions. They facilitated and brokered relationships to get the right people to the table,” Frank said. “And every single obstacle or road block we encountered, the UWSP team was the first to respond.
“So, at the end of the day, we were successful in getting the Fast Forward grant. And what that really is, is dollars that the state gives to employers to invest in people, retrain them, retool them and to keep those jobs and those skills in central Wisconsin,” he said.
Sentry chose to donate the $34,000 Fast Forward grant to UWSP Foundation to assist future students with educational assistance.
“UW-Stevens Point is committed to helping central Wisconsin meet its IT workforce needs,” said Greg Summers, the university’s provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs. “This generous funding will help us to expand our enrollment and ensure that students can graduate and find employment as quickly as possible.”
Summers said UWSP takes its role of “producing those unicorns” very seriously and will invest the donation in the tools and programs to produce the talent.