Houston organizations bring STEM to summer jobs
This highly competitive internship program gives urban youth real-world work experience in promising STEM fields
The Houston Area Urban League and SER Jobs for Progress contracted with the city to run the initiative
By Christine Heinrichs
The Houston Area Urban League (HAUL) and the Houston-Galveston area council of Service-Employment-Redevelopment (SER) Jobs for Progress took teenagers’ summer jobs up a notch in summer 2014. Instead of mowing lawns or flipping burgers, some African American and Latino high school and junior college students interned in city departments and got a leg up on careers in STEM disciplines. These young people may eventually fill vital positions left open as Baby Boomers retire.
“One of our principal objectives with this initiative was to connect people to a variety of technical opportunities and careers,” says Jeffrey Wallace, COO of HAUL. “The 2014 pilot program was a huge success. There is already funding in place for 2015.”
The 2014 program, funded by $1.6 million from the city of Houston, put 550 young people from ages sixteen to twenty-one into eighty-seven different city departments. In addition to getting useful work experience, student interns earned $8-10 per hour. Student team leads earned $12 an hour.
HAUL is an affiliate of the National Urban League (New York, NY), a historic organization that works to provide economic empowerment, educational opportunities and the guarantee of civil rights for the underserved in America. As one of its many activities, HAUL facilitates a variety of programs designed to spur interest in technical disciplines among members of underrepresented groups.
SER works to enhance the quality of life in the Hispanic community and other underserved communities by providing education, training and employment services for individuals and businesses.
Houston City Council member Larry Green worked to get the votes needed to approve the city’s funding for the initiative. It took him a couple of years to get a majority to support it. “I worked hard and shamed them into it,” he says. “We still have a few who don’t see the value of this investment in our youth, but there are more of us who see how positive this is.”
Opportunities run the STEM gamut
Some student interns worked in the city utility department, performing water system testing with technical professionals and engineers. They worked with street drainage and construction management, and in the finance department, learning about project management. Community college students in communications and graphics worked in several city departments.
The supervisors had to be prepared to give the interns real-world assignments. Students got work that was important to the overall department, and their supervisors made sure they knew it was.
Ten career coaches stayed in touch with the students throughout the summer. The city’s HR department got involved, supporting the supervisors and the students through their career coaches. It paid off in positive results. “The supervisors really raved about the quality of the students who worked for them,” says Wallace.
Getting real-world skills and experience
Andre Smith was a team lead in the 2014 program. He was responsible for a team of high school students working in the Fifth Ward Multi-Services Center. The team helped out wherever needed and developed its own project, a thirty-five-page curriculum to help young women learn about succeeding in college. The center already had a curriculum for young men.
Smith’s team also organized Fun Days for kids, with crafts such as making Cat in the Hat hats and cooling off with water balloon fights. They learned important skills like bystander CPR and healthy eating. “Even in the summer, you can have a job that’s actually useful to people,” he says.
Smith is completing his BS in biochemistry at Oakwood College (Huntsville, AL) through Texas State University (Houston). After graduation in May 2015, he hopes to work for the Urban League as he researches medical schools.
Laying a foundation for success
The program involves more than placing young people in an office. They come to the program with little or no work experience, so SER and HAUL arranged training in the basics of professional work habits for the students who were selected.
The city put its resources behind the program. The interns started with two weeks of work orientation; professional job readiness trainers were hired to teach them the rigors of job responsibilities and show them how to add value to their roles at work. “That gave the students a good foundation going forward,” says Wallace.
HAUL’s experience dealing with underrepresented minorities made it possible for the affiliate to prepare a safety net for students dealing with personal problems that can interfere with work. “Students often have economic or domestic dynamics that have nothing to do with the employment experience, such as not knowing whether they will have a place to stay or food to eat,” Wallace says. “We have support for personal situations, including intervention, counseling and financial assistance. We were able to help many students with non-work-related concerns get through the program pretty seamlessly.”
Engaging parents is key
Engaging the parents as well as the students was crucial to success. Many of the families were struggling with problems associated with low household incomes, but this wasn’t just a money-making job for their young family members. “It was a developmental experience, a learning situation,” Wallace says. In addition to helping their kids get up and to work on time, parents were encouraged to ask their kids questions about what they were doing.
“Engaging the parents was absolutely key to making sure positive habits were being established,” says Wallace. “We had to set the stage for success.”
Although support from home and the program was important, the focus was on the participants’ accountability. The program specified that students’ paychecks should be deposited electronically to their own accounts. SER worked with local banks to persuade them to open accounts for students who were under eighteen. “Learning financial responsibility is part of the program,” he says.
Limited space sparks competition
The program got the attention of the community. As soon as the announcement and application was posted, students started applying, eventually so many that the website had to be shut down. Of 5,000 who applied, there were only positions for 550.
Councilman Green hopes the program’s success will attract private sector businesses to participate in the future, making more jobs available.
Though he’d like to see the program grow, a little competition is not a bad thing, says Wallace. “The competitive aspect was an important part of the program. It helps prevent a sense of entitlement. Succeeding in technical disciplines requires a competitive edge. The disappointment of not being chosen can be fuel to improve. HAUL continues to involve the young men and women who didn’t get chosen in 2014.”
Successful interns were encouraged to communicate their value to their supervisors. And with anticipated funding, HAUL will encourage those who weren’t chosen in 2014 to apply and succeed in 2015. “We want to help them embrace the real world and get ready for it,” says Wallace. “It’s going to be competitive no matter what career you go into. You have to have the tools to compete.”
A party to cap the summer
At the end of the summer, the students were treated to a “fun day” at the city’s Moody Park, with awards, activities and games. About 220 of the participants showed up. “It was a day to take a breath and debrief, and just enjoy each other as friends,” says Wallace. SER also held a job fair, with sixteen employers on hand and ready to hire.
Green said the city’s crime rate dropped during summer 2014. He says, “I’m going to attribute it to having the kids in this program. Giving young people jobs reduces the opportunity for them to get into trouble.”
A bright future
In the meantime, HAUL has launched another career development project. This one is at Worthing High School, one of the lowest performing in the Houston Independent School District. Students perform below the state average on standardized tests, and fewer than one quarter are prepared for college in both English and math.
HAUL has set up a center inside the school to connect with students. The focus is on career development, college connections, and building interest in STEM.
“We are becoming a highly recognized avenue for students to be involved with technical professional careers,” Wallace says with pride.
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