Today the Alberta Budget dropped and the news is not good for local heritage and history institutions or the students who keeps them going in the summer months. The Student Temporary Employment Program, or STEP, was suspended. This is not a surprise but it is disappointing and detrimental to heritage and history institutions, charities, and social service institutions as well as the post-secondary students the program ensured living wages for between academic years.
The STEP program cost $7.4 million a year and subsidized wages for students working for charities, museums, community institutions, and other groups with limited funds for full-time employees. The program gave approximately 3000 students a year valuable work experience outside the typical serving and retail jobs available in the summer months.
STEP also helps charities and social service institutions pay students to help administer vital social programs in the summer months. It gives students, particularly arts and social science students, a chance to put their courses to use and see what they can do with their degree before graduation. To suspend the program does a disservice to students, making the competitive summer job market even more crowded and making it harder for students to come out of an undergrad degree with valuable work experience in their field.
The first STEP job I had was in 2002 at the NWMP Barracks Historical Site in Canmore. This was the job that made me seriously consider a career in the field I later learned was called public history. Since that first exposure to museums and STEP the program has helped pay part of my wage at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies, the Canmore Public Library, the Three Sisters Scottish Festival Society, and the Canadian Circumpolar Institute. Without the STEP program it is unlikely people like me would have the work experience necessary to be competitive in the field of museums and public history.
STEP gives back to communities because so many of the students it employs were in institutions that provide services and programs for their community. For instance, at the Canmore Public Library I was one of two students who organized and ran all the summer reading programs for children aged 2-15. Will small rural libraries have the funds to offer reading programs to children in the summer without the help of STEP? Will museums and heritage institutions be able to develop their collections and exhibits without STEP? Will the next generation of public historians and museums professionals be able to get the experience they need to get their foot in the door after graduation?