Low-income teens invited to 'Step-Up'

President of Chattanooga's Public Education Foundation, Dan Challener, talks to reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2014.
President of Chattanooga's Public Education Foundation, Dan Challener, talks to reporters at the Chattanooga Times Free Press in 2014.

In a recent report called Chattanooga 2.0, the Chamber of Commerce estimates there are now 15,000 jobs in Hamilton County that can't be filled by county residents based on education requirements. And officials found only 35 percent of local graduates earn any post-secondary credentials within six years, making them unqualified for the majority of jobs coming to the city.

The report, backed by the Chamber, the Benwood Foundation, Hamilton County Schools and the Public Education Foundation, challenged the community to be part of the solution.

Last week, PEF kicked off Step-Up, a $500,000 initiative designed to train and connect low-income students to employers through paid summer internships.

Benwood President Sarah Morgan said it is one answer to the growing crisis.

Step-Up will be modeled after Step-Up Minneapolis, under which companies turned the tide for thousands of boys and girls by offering paid internships to 21,000 students over more than a decade. Ninety six percent of those supervisors reported that their students made valuable contributions to their companies' workplace.

"Thousands of those students have subsequently been hired by Minneapolis businesses - giving those businesses well-trained, local talent and providing those students with life-changing employment," PEF President Dan Challener said. "This is exactly what we want to do in our community."

Hamilton County students who are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches will qualify to apply for 75 slots. The 75 students chosen will attend training to learn how to work in professional settings, dress properly, manage work email accounts and learn the unspoken rules of corporate culture. Then they will be sent to companies and nonprofit organizations to apply and interview for summer positions that won't include fetching coffee or making copies.

If hired, a school liaison will keep tabs on the student's on-the-job-performance, and a company contact - trained ahead of time to handle the learning curve of a student with a background of poverty - will coach the students along the way.

Both Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke and Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger are endorsing Step-Up Chattanooga, which is being funded for two years by BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee and the Benwood Foundation. Step-Up Minneapolis is funded through a public-private partnership under which about half of the $700,000 cost is funded by a city contract.

In 2003, Step-Up Minneapolis began small, when then-Mayor R.T. Rybak was shown predictions that the summer of 2004 would be the worst in several decades for youth employment. He called business contacts and then offered 75 paid internships the first year.

By the third year, Rybak said, the city realized it had stumbled on a solution that not only helped students in need connect to work but actually helped businesses build a globally fluent talent pipeline.

Each summer, about 1,600 students are trained and employers at companies like General Mills and Wells Fargo hire between 700 and 800 of them, paying them $9 to $10 an hour.

Rybak has seen dozens of examples like Eduardo Sanchez, who interned in his office.

When Sanchez was 17, he wanted to learn how city leaders made decisions that affected his crime-ridden neighborhood plagued with prostitution and the drug trade.

He was paired with the mayor's education policy aide and got to research how to decrease school dropout rates, sat in board meetings with the city's police and fire chiefs and answered upset constituents' questions at the front desk.

Step-Up taught him how to be professional and mature, but the most valuable take-away was the boost to his confidence, Sanchez said. He picked a career as a television reporter using the people and research skills he had learned. This December he graduated, after working six internships with a CBS Chicago station and NBC News.

"I was planning to go to college but I was angry about all the problems affecting my life in my neighborhood," Sanchez said. "That internship helped me to realize it and gave me the opportunity to learn something I never would have had the chance to learn."

Contact Joy Lukachick Smith at jsmith@timesfreepress.com or 757-6659.

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