Summer internships and jobs might be a rite of passage.
But often inner-city kids lose out to well-connected families that cash in favors to land their child a primo position at the bank headquarters.
Hire KC Youth — an employment-training program that Mayor Sly James started to place urban teenagers in City Hall jobs — is piloting a program this summer to expand to private businesses and nonprofits. The complex program relies on age-old wisdom:
“The best social program out there is a job,” said Kari Keefe, executive director of the KC Social Innovation Center, which is partnering with the mayor’s office and the Full Employment Council to expand the program. “When kids are employed, the statistics are so overwhelmingly in their favor for future success.”
This summer, Take Note is focused on issues of particular concern during this time when school is not in session. This story is part of our June spotlight on health.
Failing to step up and create change, she said, has a direct social cost to the entire region. “If we care about our city and our economy and the safety of our neighborhood — because those are all related — then we need to be providing these skills to the youth in our community.”
Hire KC Youth job coach Samantha Brake, who will teach at Cristo Rey in the fall, was immediately drawn to work at the program. Previous work with people who are homeless convinced her that this program is essential.
The programs offer students stipends to work in neighborhood businesses. The associations provide weekly cohort meetings to teach students everything from the stock market to filing taxes and managing workplace conflict.
“You can’t just throw young people on a work site and wish them good luck,” said Stephanie Gambone, Philadelphia Youth Network executive vice president. “If you’re not supporting (businesses) working with young people, you’re going to lose them. They are running a business.”
The group has learned that a successful youth jobs program demands strong funding and coaching support.
Similar programs have proven successful in other cities, including the Philadelphia Youth Network, which employs young people year-round through WorkReady Philadelphia. The group linked 7,886 young people with work experiences in 2016. Since its inception in 1999, WorkReady has provided 160,000 work experiences.
“The business partners love this because some of their biggest challenges come from not knowing how to manage young people or what to understand or leverage with getting good productive work out of young people. They don’t know what they’re capable of at 16, 17, 18 or 22,” Keefe said.
Program coaches help professionals conquer communication barriers that sometimes prevent businesses from hiring teenagers.
“Some places are willing to do this for two weeks. Other people are willing to do it for two to three months. It often depends on capacity, the size of your business, how adept you are at dealing with young people and how much you really value youth and diversity. Those things are all over the map,” Keefe said.
The KC Social Innovation Center designed the pilot internship program for different trades and skill sets that allow even the most hesitant firm to take on students without creating a burden or cost.
Hire KC Youth also has connected hundreds of other students to seasonal summer jobs at places like the KC Restaurant Association, Top Golf Overland Park, Truman Medical Center, Worlds of Fun and more. The overall program targets ages 16 to 24.
Hire KC Youth pays the students $10 an hour to work at places like UMB, BNIM (an architecture firm), United Inner City Services and at several City Hall departments. An additional 28 interns work at City Hall through Hire KC Youth but are not part of the pilot program. [KCPT is a participant in the summer pilot.]
In all, 57 students are participating in the immersive internships with weekly cohort meetings that are part of the pilot.
Once businesses agreed, many had a hard time choosing from the high-quality candidates. UMB Bank planned to take one intern but ended up with three.
“This is infrastructure — it’s just the human capital kind,” she said. “If we expect to have a certain kind of human work force — which we do — then we have to understand the fiscal responsibilities that support that.”
Keefe cajoled businesses into joining the summer pilot. Government and philanthropy can’t go it alone.
If all the internships go to well-connected kids, then the opportunity gap can turn into a skills gap down the road.
Some critics point to an education system obsessed with high-stakes tests. But other societal factors are at play, too, including including access to high-quality jobs, social mobility, poverty, transportation and racism.
City leaders across the country struggle with youth unemployment.
In certain Kansas City ZIP codes, nearly 20 percent of young black men have no connection to school or employment, Martin-Anderson said. “That is obviously very troubling.”
Work also increases economic mobility in a city where only a third of residents will manage to break out of the income bracket they are born into. It’s especially true, she said, for minorities. All of those factors have a direct impact on health.
Employment is one way to reduce violence, said Sarah Martin-Anderson, the department’s manager of community engagement and policy.
It’s a figure that hardly surprises the Kansas City Missouri Public Health Department, which considers employment a health intervention that is on par with blood pressure screenings and smoking cessation programs.
“In Kansas City alone, there are 30,000 young people ages 16 to 24 who are not working and not in school in the summer. And that’s a problem,” Keefe said. “What are they doing?”
Hire KC Youth addresses sobering statistics.
Moreover, Keefe said, the teens learn invaluable “soft skills,” such as interacting professionally in the workplace, handling conflict, and remaining positive, in addition to forming key professional connections.
Teenagers who work a summer job are 86 percent more likely to hold a job a year later, according to a JPMorgan Chase & Co. study. The figure increases to nearly 100 percent for teenagers who work through the school year. Participating in a program like Hire KC Youth can increase a young person’s salary by as much as 11 percent for up to eight years after high school.
Dawn Bormann Novascone is a freelance journalist based in Kansas City who spent 15 years covering news at The Kansas City Star.
Follow "Take Note: Our City. Our Schools. Our Future" as together, we tell the stories that matter, the stories that make an impact. We want to know — what stories do you have for us, and what can we find out for you? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow the entire project at takenotekc.org.