Employers step up, despite economy

Step-Up Summer Jobs Program close to goals

Southwest High School senior Tasha Holifield spent much of last summer riding her bicycle around Minneapolis — and getting paid for it.

OK, so the work Holifield found through the STEP-UP Summer Jobs Program involved more than just joy rides.

As a member of the Twin Cities Bike/Walk Ambassadors, she worked on a team that coordinated group bike rides and bike safety workshops. She also helped develop strategies to market bicycling and walking to the public.

“It was just a really sweet job,” she said.

More young people than ever are seeking jobs through STEP-UP, a partnership between the city and education nonprofit AchieveMpls that places 14- to 21-year-olds with area employers. That increased demand comes at a time when the dismal economy has forced many businesses to cut positions.

The recession made it harder than usual for STEP-UP boosters like Minneapolis School Board Member Chris Stewart to recruit new employers to the program.

“While businesses are in the mode of laying off, it’s a much tougher pitch,” Stewart said.

AchieveMpls Communications Manager Erin Larson said area employers had pledged 1,186 jobs to STEP-UP as of early April, still short of a goal of 1,300 jobs.

Several organizations dropped out of the program this year, including the Minnesota Orchestra and the Minnesota Children’s Museum. Both cited a lack of work and funding issues, AchieveMpls reported.

Stewart remained confident the employment goal was in reach. At several recent School Board meetings, he encouraged members of the business community to work their professional networks and find jobs.

“What we need employers to know is that this isn’t a charity program, this is a work program,” he said. “These kids actually end up doing meaningful work for the employers that have them.”

 The future workforce

STEP-UP applicants aged 16 to 21 are placed with employers in a variety of fields, including health care, law, business and finance. Area nonprofits hire the 14- and 15-year-olds.

STEP-UP met its goal of finding 650 jobs for the high school students in the younger age group. But jobs for older STEP-UP applicants proved harder to come by this year.

Larson said 534 jobs were pledged for 16- to 21-year-olds in early April, almost 120 positions shy of the 650-job goal for this summer.

Mayor R.T. Rybak, who spurred development of a summer youth employment program in 2003, said he continued to push employers to find more jobs.

He argued Minneapolis businesses would need a diverse future workforce to compete in a global economy. The Minneapolis Public Schools students who apply to STEP-UP fit the bill, he said.

“Every single demographic projection shows that we’ll have a worker shortage in 10 years, just as these kids are getting ready to play a role,” Rybak said.

Larson said providing one STEP-UP job costs most employers around $1,000 for the summer.

“It’s a relatively small investment,” she said. “For $1,000 you can provide a students with a great, possibly life-changing experience.”

Stewart said many students enter a professional office environment first time through STEP-UP, and that experience can shape their college and career aspirations.

“Nothing helps a kid understand what the requirements of the work world are like having a job,” he said.

 Joining the team

While STEP-UP lost some employers this year, it also recruited a few new ones. One was Carrie Wilson, who directs programming at five area Girl Scout camps.

The opportunity Wilson offered was unique, since many STEP-UP jobs are in Downtown office buildings, not the great outdoors. In this case, up to nine Minneapolis students will spend the summer working at overnight camps in Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin.

“We read about the program and just thought it would be a great opportunity to give those kids a chance to get involved in the camp program we have,” Wilson said.

Students were interested, too: Thirty-three applied for the nine open positions.

Wherever students end up, their STEP-UP experience is often more meaningful than just a paycheck. In Holifield’s case, it influenced her plans for college.

The Bike/Walk Ambassador strategy sessions, when they brainstormed ideas to encourage more bicycle riding, convinced her to pursue a marketing degree when she begins college next fall.

“I like the idea of reaching a target audience,” she said. “… It sparked my interest in why I’m going to school next year.”