STEP-UP students learn the ins and outs of a struggling economy

Muna Ahmed never thought she’d find herself interning at a company as large as Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. She didn’t expect to be sitting at a neatly organized cubicle with a view of the Minneapolis skyline behind her.

But thanks to the STEP-UP Summer Jobs Program, a city-run initiative that places 14–21-year-olds in internships at companies around the city, Ahmed has the opportunity to gain firsthand experience in a field for which she’s gaining interest: marketing.

The second-year STEP-UP intern is just one of 1,350 Minneapolis youth who have forfeited a stereotypical summer routine in favor of the program’s internship placement.

And as the state and national economies attempt to rebound, STEP-UP continues to provide valuable experience for its students.

Ahmed, a well-spoken and mature 16-year-old, has seen the program become more competitive in recent years. She said those who may not have put much effort into STEP-UP’s job training component in the past are now “a lot more into it.”

“If I had just applied for jobs without STEP-UP, I don’t think I would have gotten one,” said the soon-to-be junior at Southwest High School. “It’s a hard market to get into without experience.”

Meanwhile, the program presents employers with the unique opportunity to mold its interns into possible future employees.

“[The interns] bring a new level of energy,” said Jeannie LeMere, one of Ahmed’s supervisors at Thrivent. “They have a fresh perspective.”

This year, STEP-UP has 178 employer participants, up from 174 in 2009 and 172 in 2008. One reason the program has seen the moderate hike in employer numbers has been a slight reformation to the structure of the internships themselves.

Anne Krocak, STEP-UP director for AchieveMpls, said the biggest change she’s seen since she began working with the program five years ago is the amount of hours or weeks a student will spend at an internship. Rather than working for 40 hours a week for nine weeks, interns might now only work 15–20 hours a week for six to eight weeks, Krocak noted. However, she said the restructuring has “not had a huge impact on the opportunity itself.”

While the struggling economy has caused some companies to reduce their interns’ hours, other companies have simply had to cut the number of internships they offer.

And though Krocak is “thrilled with the great support” of all participating Minneapolis businesses, she commended such companies as Best Buy, U.S. Bank, and Thrivent for their “commitment and loyalty,” noting they are steady enough to continually set aside significant funds to support STEP-UP.

“The biggest difference is that when there’s top level, top-down leadership, there’s the greatest success,” she said.

Thanks to employer support, officials say, the program has also seen a steady increase in the number of Minneapolis students taking part. When STEP-UP began in 2004, the program placed 202 Minneapolis youth in internships. By 2009, a total of 1,282 students found work.

And not only are Minneapolis students being placed in internships at an increasing rate, but the demand for the program is at an all-time high. This year’s total of 4,050 applicants is the most STEP-UP has seen by hundreds. Of those who completed the rigorous application process, 2,100 entered the training portion of the program.

“The youth are excited about the number of employers involved,” said Tammy Dickinson, STEP-UP director for the City of Minneapolis. “[The students] can find something that matches their career goals.”

In addition to exploring career opportunities, Krocak said today’s version of the program has offered students a unique view of the economic climate.

And at Thrivent, Ahmed gets the opportunity to watch a financial company escape the crisis.

“There’s valuable info they take from learning about hiring freezes and downturns,” Krocak said. “They’re getting a greater understanding of the economy.”