Washington, 21 February 1997 (RFE/RL) - One of the least known and least expensive -- but among the most effective -- technical assistance programs the U.S. offers to the newly independent states of the former Soviet Union has quietly passed a milestone.
The Special American Business Internship Training Program, known as SABIT welcomed its 1,000th business manager to the U.S. for an intensive two to six month assignment to work with an American company.
The program is administered by the U.S. Commerce Department, which reimburses the individual companies for about half the costs of bringing the intern to the U.S. and providing the training. Since its founding in 1991, the program has spent only $ 13 million to place the 1,000 interns with more than 300 U.S. companies.
The interns, who must be at least middle level managers in an enterprise, are chosen by the program's officials in a very competitive screening process. For example, the director of SABIT, Liesel Duhon, says more than 100 applications were received for 15 positions available with environmental clean-up companies.
The applications came from the 12 countries in the program -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine and Uzbekistan.
The 15 people selected have been in the U.S. since early February, and are now working with a number of companies around the country.
A similar group of managers from the telecommunications industries marked the program's milestone Saturday by attending a dinner in Duhon's private home. It was just another chance, she says, to bring the interns into close and personal contact with American business people. Interestingly, both the companies which have been involved and the interns themselves, praise the program highly.
Alexander Vyaly, from St. Petersburg, Russia says in a letter he sent to the program officials that the most valuable lesson he learned was a new attitude toward labor. "If in Russia people understand that to live you have to work, and work hard, the things will change to better."
Vitali Kovalev, from Moscow, wrote that the most "significant result of the internship is the change in mentality... (we) now much better understand the meaning of product quality and customers."
Duhon says that is probably the most important benefit the internships offer. "Most of the people who go back feel they've had a change in mind-set," she told RFE/RL. "They have seen first hand how companies operate in a market economy, the importance of customer service, quality control and how the market really controls what products are available."
In addition to individual internships, which require the ability to speak English, the program offers a number of group training sessions. Using translators, a small group of managers who do not speak English are able to spend time at a number of firms and still get a feel for the operations and business atmosphere.
Groups of bankers, accountants, hazardous materials clean-up specialists, and dairy industry managers, have recently been in training, with power generation executives and food processing managers due later in the year.
Duhon says credits much of the success is because the government administrators who she says leave the business training too the private companies. "We facilitate everything, the contacts they make, etc., but the companies do the training, give them the introduction to products and technology and the way companies are set up here," she says, it is "the most valuable part of the training."
Victor Kamenev, from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, participated in specialized program on defense conversion which ended in December. He wrote that the real value was to see how "theory and practice work together; that is the best, you cannot have one without the other."
Added Vladimir Korolyov of the Institute for Physics and Power Engineering in Obninsk, Russia: "observing the stability and productivity of the American economic system are valuable experiences that have an irreversible effect on people's thinking -- seeing is believing."
Duhon says another measure of the value of the program is the number of joint ventures, business partnerships and other relationships which have grown from the internships.
One intern on his return to Ukraine initiated three new joint ventures with California-based institutions -- one identifying and developing high technology products in such fields as high temperature processing and computer software development; another on development of electric power control switches; and the third, exploring possibilities of designing and building controls for automated coal mines and steel industries.
Two interns from Kazakhstan set up a joint venture with the electronics company in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania where they interned. The company is now making printed circuit boards in Kazakhstan.
The most unusual success story comes not just from the intern, but the U.S. company that helped pay for the training.
The President of Northern Technologies International, Philip Lynch, says that through the intern that worked at his firm in the east-central state of Ohio, the firm located and purchased some Russian technology that it turned into products which are sold globally. As a result, the firm's sales have mushroomed, creating profits and jobs in both Russia and the U.S. Says Lynch: "The SABIT program is the best thing Commerce (Department) has ever done for small business."
The program may be little known in official Washington, but dozens of business people around the U.S. and hundreds of former interns in former Soviet states keep saying what counts is what works.