Stepping into the future workplace

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July 16, 2007
By: Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas
Ethan Lassitter’s summer internship with Metro Transit was filled with pretty typical intern tasks.

“There’s some data entry, and there’s some making graphs and things,” the Southwest High School junior explained after work one afternoon.

It may not sound that exciting, but for a 16-year-old with a precocious interest in transportation and urban planning, the internship had some great perks.

There were, for instance, the mornings spent in the Rail Control Center, basically the nerve center for the city’s light-rail transit system. The small, computer-packed room looked like something out of the television spy thriller “24,” Lassitter said.

“Just learning and seeing what a job would be like, you could do that lots of places,” he said. But Lassitter was learning skills he might use in a career, and that was something truly valuable, he said.

Lassitter was one of about 640 teens and young adults placed in summer internships through the Step-Up summer jobs program this year. Now in its fourth year of operation, Step-Up is sponsored by Achieve!Minneapolis, the educational foundation supporting Minneapolis Public Schools, in partnership with the city of Minneapolis.

“Kids need some real experience in jobs that reflect their interests,” said David Brant, Step-Up director. “We really give kids an opportunity to explore who they are.”

Students aged 16–21 were placed in internships with about 140 metro-area employers. It is the second-biggest private-sector-funded jobs program of its type in the country, Brant said.

This year, students are expected to earn nearly $1.5 million in wages from employers like Best Buy, US Bancorp, the Star Tribune and Ameriprise Financial.

“What we’re trying to show companies is that our students are really a viable future work force,” Brant said.

Succeeding together
Minneapolis’ summer employment program for teenagers got its start in the spring of 2003 with a kick-start from Mayor R.T. Rybak. Rybak said he was troubled by predictions of a dismal summer job market for teens.

“We heard it was going to be the worst summer for teenage employment in 35 years,” he recalled. “I said, ‘We have to do something about this.’”

Rybak enlisted several local employers to create positions for students. After some initial success that year, the program returned in 2004 as Step-Up.

It has grown every year since.

In 2006, Step-Up became the centerpiece of the Minneapolis Promise, a multipart program to help students complete high school and achieve career goals. The program includes career counseling, summer employment opportunities and college tuition assistance.

“Step-Up is a key part of that because it has shown our businesses and our students that they can succeed together,” Rybak said.

While students learn to operate in an office environment alongside adults, their employers learn a thing or two about the work force of the future.

“In almost all cases, we’re sending kids from schools that have a very diverse population into businesses that are just starting to diversify,” Rybak said.

Rybak argued those businesses that welcome a diverse workforce will have an edge in the increasingly global marketplace.

Brant said the diversity among Step-Up interns reflects the wider school district demographics. About 85 percent are students of color, and about 70 percent are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch during the school year, an indicator that their families’ incomes are at or near poverty level.

“For many of these kids, they’ve never been in a Downtown office building,” Brant said. “… [Step-Up] opens up a whole lot of doors and [offers them] new ways to look at the world.”

Begin with the basics
Kafiya Ahmed had just turned 16 years old when she started her first internship through Step-Up at public relations firm Weber Shandwick’s Bloomington office. The internship wasn’t just Ahmed’s first experience in an office; it was her first job ever.

“I always spent my summers doing pretty much nothing,” she said.

That summer three years ago, the lessons on professional life began with the basics.

“One of the first things I learned was how to shake someone’s hand properly, which I know sounds trivial but comes in kind of handy,” Ahmed said, unintentionally making a pun.

Ahmed said she also picked up valuable computer skills and some office communication tips, like how to get the most information while asking the fewest questions.

In the years since, Ahmed, who graduated from Roosevelt High School this spring, has become something of a poster child for the Step-Up program.

Last summer, she earned an internship in Rybak’s office. This summer, she has her own cubicle on the 23rd floor of the US Bank Building Downtown where she is interning for the assistant to US Bancorp CEO Richard Davis, one of the first business leaders to buy into Rybak’s vision for a summer internship program.

Ahmed said she wasn’t planning on a career in banking. Her own interests go more toward international diplomacy.

“My area of interest is more on travel and politics, global aid and stuff,” she said.

Ahmed plans to begin studies in political science at the University of Minnesota this fall, where she was offered a full scholarship.

“My dream job would be to work for the [United Nations] in some capacity,” she said.

When she takes that dream job, it’s likely she’ll think back to the early days of her first internship. After all, international diplomats shake a lot of hands.