WorkSystems summer internships give teens boost in job market

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Amida Omari plays a game called calling all cars with kids at Vernons SUN Summer Program, her first job. Amida Omari recalls having just one book to read in the summer, a book of French short stories, which she’d read over and over.

As a child growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she says she never had a chance to go to summer school, much less earn some cash at a summer job.

“If your parent has money, they’d send you on vacation (in the summer) to see your relatives,” the 18-year-old Southeast Portland student recalls. But if they don’t, “you stay home and do nothing.”

In 2009, Omari came here as a refugee with her mother and six siblings and attended Franklin High School, where she learned English quickly and graduated with honors last month despite her family’s hardships.

In March, her mother died from lung cancer, leaving her older brother as their legal guardian since their father had been killed when they lived in the Congo.

The Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization has been helping the Omari children, and this fall Omari will use scholarship money to study nursing at Portland State University.

In the meantime, she was offered the chance at a paid internship this summer — and she seized it.

“This is my first time working,” Omari said Monday, just after wrapping up her first day of work as an assistant to the summer camp students at Vernon School’s SUN program. “I want to work because I want to support myself. Now it’s kind of hard. We have to support each other.”

With her first paycheck, she says, “I would love to pay the gas bill.”

Omari is one of 530 high school-age youth in Multnomah and Washington counties this summer who are working, thanks to the nonprofit WorkSystems’ SummerWorks program.

The public-private partnership trains and then matches kids to jobs relating to their interests, from administration to warehouse work, customer service, community outreach and government work.

The demand is ever-present: There were 1,200 applicants for 530 slots this year.

Most (97 percent) are low-income and three-quarters are youth of color.

Reese Lord, senior project manager for WorkSystems and co-founder of Portland’s successful Leadership and Entrepreneurship Charter School, says the statistics are depressing: In the past 10 years, summer youth employment dropped from 46 percent to 7 percent. For low-income kids of color, it’s just 12 percent.

There are many factors at play. Older adults who’ve been displaced or laid off are now competing at the lower end of the job market. And in a hyper-competitive job market, many businesses can’t justify the extra help — gone are the days when it was easy to get a job stocking shelves in a warehouse or hardware store.

“Getting your first job in high school isn’t a reality anymore,” Lord says. “If you don’t get this first job, how do you get the foundation for a family-wage job?”

Partnerships pay off

WorkSystems began as part of the $787 billion federal stimulus program in 2009, when those dollars paid to put 1,300 local kids to work. The next summer the money went away but the problem still remained, Lord says.

In 2010 they were able to offer 300 jobs.

The next year of the recession it sunk to 200, then last year it rose to 315.

This year the 530 jobs are a result of the public-private partnerships, which Lord hopes will continue to grow.

“We’ve landed on a model that I think is sustainable,” he says. “We know the need is much greater.”

Currently 11 public-sector entities (including the cities of Portland, Beaverton and Hillsboro; Multnomah and Washington counties, TriMet, Metro, Portland Public Schools and others) contribute a total of $704,000.

Twenty five private-sector companies contribute a total of $87,000. They include large companies like Boeing, Providence and PCC Structurals, as well as a few local outfits like Milagros Boutique and Glendoveer Golf & Tennis.

Another $133,000 comes from foundation grants and donors from seven organizations.

Lord says the program has been highly effective. Since 2009:

• 91 percent of the youth successfully completed their internship and received a

positive evaluation from their supervisor.

• 93 percent of the employers would encourage their colleagues and other companies to participate.

• 93 percent of youth returned to high school, post-secondary school or found a job.

Making a difference

Kenneth Urom, a Northeast Portland 17-year-old who’ll be a senior at Benson Polytechnic High School this fall, says he was offered the chance at a WorkSystems job because of the leadership he showed at school. “I applied immediately,” he says, since he’d already been in the process of applying for other summer jobs, with no luck.

“Most of them were like, ‘We’re not hiring at this time, try again soon,’ “ he says.

Staying home this summer wasn’t an option. “I wanted to work,” he says. “My parents are big on independence, making money on your own. If I want a new coat, new shoes, or just save for the future.”

Urom, who spends his free time singing and posting videos to YouTube, came to Portland from Nigeria as a young boy and attended Beach School and then Ockley Green in North Portland before Benson.

Once he was selected by WorkSystems, he attended the weeklong summer training program, where he learned how to create a successful résumé, how to present himself in the workplace, how to fill out a timecard, communicate with his supervisor, and ace an interview.

When he interviewed at Multnomah County’s Crisis Diversion program, “I was very confident I could ace it,” he says.

And he did. He started his job there on Monday.

This summer he’ll be learning about confidentiality rules and what happens when people end up in a crisis situation, and how

to respond to the crisis, says Joanne O’Connell, who supervises the nine-person department. She says she thought it would be a no-brainer to offer the internship this year.

“The field of developmental disabilities is one that’s always in need of people with a lot of enthusiasm and interest,” O’Connell says. “I think people don’t know enough about it to know if it’d be a good fit. I thought this would be a good chance for exposure.”

As an intern Urom also will help organize their resource library, update archives and create PowerPoint presentations of information for foster families. As a health occupations major at Benson, Urom says this is right up his alley.

His mom is a nurse, his dad was a doctor but died before Urom was born, and his grandfather also was a doctor in Nigeria.

“I have a strong passion for politics, but I also want to be a family practitioner,” he says. “I get to help another person.”

As a county aide this summer, Urom says, “I can’t save the world, but I feel like in this little way I can make a difference, just by being here.”

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