June 18, 2012 | last updated June 19, 2012 1:51 pm

Proton employs scholarship winners in new hiring strategy

Photo / Pablo Robles
Photo / Pablo Robles
(Left) Mark Schiller, vice president of business development at Wallingford clean tech company Proton Onsite, and intern Phil Lubik (in the polo shirt) stand in front of the company's SunHydro station for refueling hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. (Above) Intern Carolyn Bai (in the center) stands with her scholarship plaque she received from Proton Onsite.
Contributed Photo

Proton Onsite has hired two of its Connecticut scholarship winners as summer engineering interns, demonstrating the Wallingford clean energy company's new approach to workforce development.

Proton introduced a national scholarship program two years ago, rewarding outstanding high school students for their accomplishments in science and technology. New England entrepreneur and Proton owner Tom Sullivan funds each $100,000 prize and has given away $1.7 million over the past three years.

The program now is paying off for Proton, which manufactures gas generators. Mark Schiller, vice president of business development, said starting the scholarship was an investment in the future of the company.

"Our hope all along has been that we would start to get some of our scholarship winners in here to do internships," Schiller said. "The global view is that hopefully one of these days we'll actually be able to hire one of our scholarship winners. That would be the ideal situation."

Proton awards the money each year to high school seniors who display superior achievement and promise in science and technology. The merit and need-based scholarship funds tuition at any four-year institution. The company has received 400-500 applications each year for the past three years from applicants from 49 states.

The company awarded Phil Lubik of Harwinton and Carolyn Bai of Old Saybrook scholarships at the end of their senior year of high school in May 2010. Proton offered them internships this summer after their second year of college, in hopes that the two will return and work for the company after completing their education.

The new hiring tactic departs from the usual method of posting jobs and focuses on recruiting smart, capable candidates with a connection to Proton.

"This is a perfect example of how to prepare young people for a work environment," said Sandra Rodriguez, spokeswoman for Capitol Workforce Partners. "If they have experience with the work and culture of the organization, then they are a natural fit for a new hire."

The students said they were very interested in working with Proton, and not only because of its generous contribution to their education.

Both are enthusiastic about its role as an alternative energy provider. Bai, who majors in civil engineering at Northwestern University, was drawn to the company because of its focus on sustainable initiatives. Lubik, a mechanical engineering major at Rutgers University, said Proton's work is important in shaping the energy industry.

"This really is the future. The way energy has worked in the past wasn't sustainable," said Lubik. "What this company and what Mr. Sullivan are doing is bringing the future now."

They are the first scholarship winners to work for the company, as Schiller wanted students with at least two years of college experience. Proton plans to make the internships an extension of the students' learning in the classroom, and the two will work daily on everything from testing products to reviewing manuals.

Lubik said hands-on experience will help him decide if he should add an alternative energy specialization to his degree.

"The internship is an opportunity to prove myself as an engineer, and to show Proton that they made the right decision in giving me the scholarship," Bai said.

After college, Lubik plans to pursue a professional degree, either master of business administration or a doctorate. Bai hopes to spend some time giving back, working for an organization like the Peace Corps or Engineers Without Borders.

Eventually, both said they see themselves at a Connecticut company like Proton Onsite.

The scholarship significantly impacted the college experiences of the two students. Lubik doesn't need a job to put him through school, so the money gave him the opportunity to get involved with community service projects such as Dance Marathon. Bai sees the scholarship's stipulation that she maintain a 3.0 grade point average as an incentive to always do her best.

Using scholarships as hiring tools exemplifies how Proton changed under Sullivan's leadership. The Lumber Liquidators founder bought the company in 2008, after reading about the auction in the newspaper the previous day. Since then, he has focused on long-term strategy, including installing SunHydro solar powered hydrogen-fueling stations in hopes of increasing the market for fuel cell cars.

In 2010, the scholarship's inaugural year, Sullivan gave away $1 million, awarding each of 10 finalists with a check. The decision came as a shock, as Proton originally intended to give out only one scholarship.

Lubik remembers the moment perfectly, saying he was in such disbelief, he thought he wasn't understanding English correctly, "I was like, 'Everyone? That includes me, right?'"

Bai, who was unable to attend the California awards ceremony, said she was equally shocked when she picked up the phone heard that not only had she won, but everyone else had too.

"I could not believe they gave out that much money, it was amazing," Bai said.

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