SummerWorks: it works
Students and "disconnected youth" celebrated the end of the SummerWorks program last week with a box lunch and motivational speakers at Smith Hall at Portland State University. For those looking for more work there was a job fair attended by companies such as Pacific Foods (soups and broths), McKenna Metals (precision fabrication) as well as government bureaus like the Portland Fire Department and the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
The program is a collaboration between Manufacturing 21 and Worksystems Inc., and it places students in paid internships across different industries — blue collar and white — in a systematic way. The goal is to give kids as young as 16 their first taste of work so they at least acquire the soft skills needed to make them desirable in this low unemployment economy: punctuality, courtesy, and a touch of go-getterism.
Now in its 10th year, more than 8,000 kids have passed through SummerWorks. This year 85 percent participated successfully, meaning they completed their summer job and got a positive evaluation by supervisors.
At a roundtable discussion attended by more than a dozen leaders from politics, industry and education, Andrew McGough, who has been the Executive Director of Worksystems since 2006, said, "They mastered the essential skills of showing up on time and making a good team effort, which are foundational to creating good employees down the line."
The Summerworks participants range in age and background.
For example, Colton Morgan, currently a mechanical engineering student at Oregon State, spent the summer interning at Epson in Hillsboro where they make ink cartridges.
He turned two-dimensional drawings into 3D models in SolidWorks. "It was awesome, I really enjoyed my time, and learned a bunch," said Morgan. He confirmed that this was actual work, not busywork.
His friend Tien Le, a Portland State University student, was a Human Resources intern at the same Epson plant. She did filing and data entry, but also helped the company redo their organizational charts, which were inconsistent between departments. "I helped with the layouts and editing with
Visio," she told the Business Tribune.
Le had already worked in Family and Child Services at PSU as her work study job. She didn't know what an org chart was before the summer, but felt she could make one for PSU now. "Yeah definitely!" She said. She discovered SummerWorks by attending a job fair in Portland. After a week of workshops and an interview with a career coach she chose the position in HR.
Some of the attendees were high school age.
Peace Irakoze, 17, and her cousin Gille Ntibamenya grew up in in East Africa in Tanzania's capital Dar Es Salaam. Irakoke, a junior at Central Catholic, was a caddy at Glenview golf course for the summer. She didn't know much about golf at first. "I carried bags, I took out clubs, I cleaned their clubs," she said. After lunch at the job fair she was filling out a job application for McKenna Metals, which is on Northwest Nicolai Street near Esco. She was not quite sure what the job entailed, but wanted to make extra money on weekends because she had school and cheer during the week.
"It's making stuff, like with metal. But it's mostly computers, I don't have to handle tools," she told the Business Tribune. Her favorite design program is Photoshop.
Gille Ntibamenya spent the summer of 2018 at Troutdale's Goin' Gaming, serving customers and stocking shelves with board games and sleeves of Magic the Gathering cards. He goes to Reynolds High School. "I love learning things, it was an easy job," he says. He was not looking for work during the school year, he was just keeping his cousin company.
Worksystems created the Connect2Careers website as a way to bring young job seekers and employers together.
As Norm Eder explained at the roundtable, "For three thousand dollars we can put a kid to work, pay their taxes, and connect them to manufacturing, healthcare, construction, IT, things we know are going to attract employment down the line."
Eder works for Manufacturing 21, so he has a slight bias to the side of SummerWorks that places youth in manufacturing jobs. The broader aim is to bring disconnected youth into the workforce work-ready, but the discussion showed that industry and education are not at odds but are structurally dislocated.
He suggested political pressure can be applied.
"One of things beginning to suggest to local officials in city and county government, attaching the participation in Connect2Careers ought to be mandatory in contracting system. As local government puts out proposals for bid, they ought to say 'By the way, as a precursor to your application we want to see you have signed up for this program of youth engagement.' Doesn't cost them any money... It's quick way of recruiting more than 90 companies. That's a modest number, we need to have thousands."
The leaders puzzled over why unemployment for 16 to 24-year-olds is three times the state average, and still below the 2008 numbers in terms of youth participation. "Only 40 percent of those who could work look for work, and that is drastically lower than in the 1970's and '80s, when 70 percent looked," said McGough.
Gary Gaussoin, CEO, Silver Eagle Manufacturing and Chair of MFG 21 said, "Being a manufacturer, our careers are out of vogue. People don't grow up on the farm any more. Many people don't know that they have gifts with their hands and that's their primary learning method. What can we do to get some respect back?"
Biljana Jesic, assistant director at Home Forward, bemoaned that No Child Left Behind favored testing over well-rounded education, and said that for many kids, "Manufacturing is this big abstract thing: 'Is that the same as construction?' We try to educate the parents as well as the kids," she said. Making kids aware of industries is one thing. Resources are another. She had a girl who almost missed out on a construction internship because her family couldn't afford the work boots and jeans she needed. The program paid for them and she succeeded.
State Representative Jeff Reardon of Happy Valley said that the phrase "college and career" unduly privileges the 30 percent who go to college, and that career technical student organizations, such as Future Farmers of America and Skills USA are hidden treasures. "They have a curriculum in conjunction with their industries. Half is technical, the other half is leadership. They gain essential skills, running meetings, running conventions, they have state and national competitions. We have one of most successful models and no one advocating for it," he concluded.
In a hallway outside the job fair, staff from IRCO the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization, logged people in and helped them with their applications. (They also have been running the internships, making sure the kids find their placements and get paid.)
On the screen they can look up an applicant and see what an employer sees — their qualifications. However humble they may seem — these icons or digital badges that show they completed the internship — they are a valuable sorting tool for firms tired of wading through databases of people without formal qualifications.
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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