How To Teach Younger Members Essential Life Skills

An externship program at TopLine Federal Credit Union teaches students and educators about the essential skills needed to excel in business.


Many credit unions offer financial education courses and classes. And for good reason, it is one of the many ways credit unions support their members and communities. Providing financial education is one of the public policy roles of credit unions and contributes to the industry’s tax exemption. Now, TopLine Federal Credit Union ($345.6M, Maple Grove, MN) is championing another life skill that is also critical in today’s economy: How to be a good employee.

Countless quality potential hires enter the work force after the closing of every academic semester. But because these previous students lack certain professional skills and real-world experience, many businesses disregard the legitimacy of their candidacy. TopLine bridges the gap between theory and application through an externship program that highlights the skills many institutions expect from a new hire.

TopLine’s externship began when assistant vice president of marketing, Vickie Erickson, joined a local chamber of commerce committee that brings together business leaders and education advocates. The committee develops scholarships, mock interviews, job shadowing, and mentor programs for area students and teachers.

TopLine’s externship, a one-day job shadow, aims to address the practical deficiencies that arise in a classroom-only curriculum. It is open to teachers and students from middle school, high school, and community college. Students earn valuable firsthand business experience. Teachers use the experience to build a stronger course syllabus and better prepare students for internships, part-time jobs, or full-time employment. 

“They have the opportunity to explore the world of business; specifically, careers in the financial services industry,” Erickson says. “They experience a typical workday and learn the types of skills we need and value. They also learn about the latest trends and requirements of the industry.”

How To Connect With Local Educators

Looking for educational experiences in the professional world is a common concept for college and university students, but this is not the case with primary and secondary students. It can be difficult for businesses and professional organizations to reach middle and high school minors. And cutting through the noise to attract the attention of teachers can be just as tough. The in for TopLine came in the form of guidance counselors.

“Our real champions in the schools are the guidance counselors, they were our original connection,” Erickson says. “They’ve been our cheerleaders and are the ones that get the teachers involved with the program.”

Guidance counselors from four area high schools partnered with Erickson to create the credit union’s externship program. During the job shadow, participants spend 30 to 45 minutes with various departments and transition through several roles, including that of the CEO.

“They transition through marketing, training, all of our departments in the credit union to get an overview of the different career fields available in the financial services industry,” Erickson says. “Many of us think about the operations on the front line, but there are many career tracks in the back office, such as accounting, finance, marketing, training, underwriting, and lending. It is pretty eye-opening for the teachers in terms of the other career tracks available at a financial organization.”

TopLine customizes the job shadow based on what interests the participant. Credit union employees in each department explain their role and what they do; they also provide personal background, such as where they went to school, what subjects they liked, and what their career path and professional progression has looked like over the years.

“Shadows learn how we work and intermingle with other departments across the organization,” Erickson says. “Most importantly, they learn the skills needed to conduct our jobs today as well as the skills that will be most important to them as they’re thinking about their future careers.”

For teachers, the shadow allows them to identify tangible tips and skills — such as what to expect in an interview or what to include on a resume — they can take back to their classroom and teach their students.

The shadowing program has earned the credit union positive PR and has introduced a new group of potential members to the credit union movement. But according to Erickson, the real benefit is the stronger connection the credit union has with its community.

“We’re building stronger community relationships,” Erickson says. “They know they have a credit union in their backyard that supports not only financial aspects of their lives but also the community aspect.”