STEP-UP Chattanooga seeking local businesses to hire high school interns this summer

Cardiac rehab manager Allan Lewis, right, shows intern Makalah Smith how to input information in the computer in CHI Memorial Hospital's cardiac rehabilitation facility on Thursday, July 14, 2016, in Chattanooga, Tenn. More than 40 businesses and organizations in Hamilton County have offered paid internships to high school students through the Step-Up Chattanooga program.

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Across Chattanooga and the surrounding area, 40 businesses, organizations and nonprofit groups have committed to hiring Hamilton County high school students for paid internships this summer through the Public Education Fund's program STEP-UP Chattanooga.

STEP-UP places low-income students in internships at local businesses and organizations and provides work-readiness training for students throughout the spring before their summer internships.

Last year, the program's goal was to place 175 students in internships. It placed 153 with 95 different employers.

This summer, the program's goal is 200.

"This is what makes Chattanooga a special place, where people work together to do special things for kids," said Dan Challener, president of PEF. "We want students who want to be part of our community. We just need more internships There are young people, young adults who are waiting for that opportunity."

The partners who already have committed to hiring an intern include companies such as Pinnacle Financial, Tennessee Valley Federal Credit Union and Unum, as well as nonprofits such as Northside Neighborhood House, Tech Town and the United Way of Greater Chattanooga.

Forty business partners means about 75 internships, according to Jeff Rector, PEF's business partnerships manager. The obligation that comes with hiring an intern includes 20 to 30 hours of work a week for six weeks over the summer.

Organizations that can't actually hire an intern can sponsor an internship at another organization, Rector said.

For the students who already have taken part in the program, it has been life-changing.

Lucas Wright, a senior at Lookout Valley, wants to attend law school some day. For his first summer with STEP-UP, Wright was placed at Warren & Griffin, a local law firm.

The opportunity to explore his ideal career while earning an income was invaluable, he said.

"I'm the eldest of three children in a single-parent household. It gave me a means of support for my mom over the summer," Wright said. "More so than the financial support, the soft skills and the information we gain from STEP-UP is invaluable."

STEP-UP staffers spend their Saturdays in the spring prepping the student participants on basic job training. They walk the students through job applications and mock interviews. They explain business-casual attire, teach them how to give a firm handshake, how to look people in the eye, proper business communication and resume writing.

The prospective interns will interview with companies later this spring and, hopefully, will be matched with positions.

"These are things we can't quite teach, but these internships can provide," said Bryan Johnson, superintendent of Hamilton County Schools.

Workforce readiness has been a focus of newly appointed Johnson's tenure and coincides with the work the community has done through initiatives such as Chattanooga 2.0, of which PEF is a partner, to prepare ready graduates in Hamilton County Schools.

"These are the experiences that will change them," Johnson said. "It's important for our students to understand, for our teachers and our leaders to understand what we are preparing our students for after high school."

PEF and its partners also are able to learn from the high schoolers.

Brian Townsend, a senior at Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, interned for PEF last summer. Challener said he was able to provide insight into the needs and experiences of Hamilton County high schoolers.

"Brian did amazing work for us," Challener said. "Can you imagine anyone better to advise us on our program or on our Camp College program? We have a real expert on students advising us. He was amazing."

Townsend feels it is important for the upcoming generation to be given these opportunities.

"It's all about the students," he said. "We are the next generation. We are going to be in your place. It's so beneficial to kids like myself. We need this opportunity in order to be great."

STEP-UP Chattanooga is based on a similar program in Minneapolis that has served 20,000 students since its launch in 2003.

Chattanooga's program, launched in 2016, initially was funded by $500,000 in combined grants from the Benwood Foundation and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee Health Foundation.

On Friday, Roy Vaughn, BlueCross BlueShield's senior vice president and chief communications officer, presented PEF with another $200,000 grant.

Challener hopes that more interns can be matched this year. To do that, he hopes to have 250 internship commitments by March 1st.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.