Internship programs that focus on diversity, equity and inclusion may be rare among electric cooperatives now, but one large service co-op sees such initiatives as a promising way to engage members and broaden their hiring pool.

Pioneer Utility Resources began work on its virtual DEI internship in 2020 amid national calls for social change following the murder of George Floyd, said Sydney Turner, the program’s co-founder and social media director at the Hillsboro, Oregon-based co-op.

“It became clear there could be a much better match between the diverse voices speaking in rural communities and those we serve through rural utility communications,” Turner said. “Our interest was in bridging that opportunity gap for young folks and also bringing the richness of their lived experience to those communities that we serve in rural America.”

Pioneer provides print magazines, social media, marketing and website design to more than 250 electric cooperatives, municipal utilities, broadband providers and state associations.

Now in its third year, the DEI program hires two interns, who must be juniors or seniors in a four-year bachelor’s program and have strong writing skills. Pioneer focuses its recruitment efforts on journalism schools with diverse student bodies, including historically black colleges and universities and first-generation college student organizations. Interns work full time for 10 weeks for $18 an hour in either social media or magazine writing.

“We really want them to learn as much as humanly possible, both about actual professional communications and what it’s like to work in an agency environment,” said Turner.

The interns also attend lunch-and-learn sessions with professionals coming from diverse backgrounds. “That’s the part that really sets us apart,” she said. “It’s not just about finding people who meet the DEI criteria, checking a box and moving on. We want to really cherish our interns for who they are and for everything they bring to the table.”

“It was very rewarding to create content for my local cooperative and see how I could apply my work to the community that raised me,” Thesken said. “The internship gave me all the skills and knowledge and network, and I also got to learn from the leadership team at Pioneer through their mentorship program.

The 23-year-old grew up on the lines of Kaua’i Island Utility Cooperative and completed her internship during her final year at Point Loma Nazerene University in San Diego, where she lives now. She now builds websites for Powerful Web Design for Utilities, which works with Pioneer.

Franklin Thurlow was in his last year at East Texas Baptist University when he completed the internship’s magazine track in 2022. Today, he’s a communications associate at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee in Nashville. He said the guidance he received from editor Mike Teegarden made him a better writer.

“I would 1,000% recommend it,” said Thurlow, 23, who learned about the internship from an adviser who had a contact at Pioneer Utility Resources. “Mike was super-involved. He walked me through his edits, so I could see where he was coming from. He was always there, and I could always reach out with anything I needed.”

The program has also been meaningful for Pioneer employees, who volunteer as mentors, internship committee members and lunch-and-learn speakers.

Pioneer’s Rachel Marston has mentored Thesken. The senior account manager was motivated by her own positive experiences when she was starting out.

“It was fulfilling to be a helper for those still deciding their career journey,” Marston said. “We talked about anything and everything … about their internship, their career goals. I gave them my honest feedback and wanted them to grow from their experience with us.”

Pioneer’s success with the DEI internship program led it to establish a new DEI Rural Storytelling Fellowship to widen coverage of rural and underrepresented communities. The recipient will receive a six-month stipend to travel the Pacific Northwest and develop content for Pioneer’s West Coast magazines and digital platforms.

“Expanding the range of rural storytellers will result in richer accounts of rural life as it is truly lived,” said Leon Espinoza, Pioneer’s senior vice president of content and the fellowship’s executive sponsor.

While Pioneer’s DEI efforts open the door for students with different perspectives and backgrounds, the program could also help co-ops cultivate a new generation of employees as the utility workforce ages.

“We hope that by developing the talent of young folks coming up in the communications industry, they'll be drawn to careers in rural communications,” Turner said.