Just five months ago, Mayor R.T. Rybak went to the White House to herald the success of STEP-UP, a summer employment program for disadvantaged youth in Minneapolis that has helped 14,000 students since it began in 2004.

It was a highlight for STEP-UP, which remains a key part of the city's strategy to bring more minorities into better jobs in the Twin Cities.

But fewer students are starting a STEP-UP job this month, for the second year in a row.

The program has matched 1,850 youths with jobs this year, the lowest number since 2008 and a 20 percent drop since the peak in 2010.

Rybak defended the program's success in an interview this week, saying the numbers would rise again.

"We'll get back to that," he said.

Officials attribute the drop to loss of stimulus funding and cutbacks in federal block grants that subsidize wages for some employers in the program, particularly nonprofits. Federal and state funding for the part of the budget that subsidizes youth employment fell 30 percent this past year. That budget gets 55 percent of its money from federal and state funds, and 45 percent from the city.

The segment of the program geared toward more advanced students, STEP-UP Achieve, has continued to grow, largely because the private employers that offer those jobs do not depend on the city to pay their interns' wages. Wells Fargo, for instance, is employing a record 45 interns this summer.

STEP-UP matches students between the ages of 14 and 21 with paid summer jobs at hundreds of private companies, nonprofits and government entities. Students receive training on how to network, interview, and write résumés, and work with mentors to start on a career track. Most are minorities or come from low-income families. Enrollment in the program steadily increased in earlier years. By 2009, the number of STEP-UP jobs hit 2,270, a 23 percent increase from the year before. It rose the next year to 2,312. The city set a more ambitious goal for 2011 of 2,400.

But Minneapolis placed just 1,950 that year, and still fewer in 2012.

The mayor said Minneapolis has steered the program through an economic downturn, and now, coming out of that, STEP-UP is "significantly deepening the experience" for kids.

"As we look forward into the future, we need to make a very clear argument to the state and federal government that ... investing in employment and workforce development for young people is a good investment for our state and our country," said Jeremy Hanson Willis, interim director of the city's department of Community Planning and Economic Development.

A more diverse workforce

Leaders of STEP-UP point to a project at Minneapolis tech company Agosto as an illustration of the program's future.

Agosto is employing six STEP-UP interns this summer to work with local nonprofits to implement and provide support in cloud technology and Google Apps -- skills some of them learned during a Google for Youth Entrepreneurs Day training session last month.

Rybak visited with the interns at Agosto's office at the Bassett Creek office building on Monday and heard students talk about their experience working in a more collaborative, relaxed environment than they had anticipated. He also reinforced the need for a more diverse workforce to students who speak Spanish, Albanian and Arabic.

"I don't know of many other programs that allow you to get this experience ... it's definitely reinforced my career choice," said Eros Deva, 18, who is starting school at the University of Minnesota in a few months. Deva, whose family immigrated to Minneapolis from Albania in 2004, wants to study computer science and business, and is thinking about starting his own tech company one day.

Officials say the program has focused on helping students develop a richer experience that places them on a career track.

The Agosto interns are not answering phones or filing papers, they're collaborating on real projects, said Jeremiah Brown, director of STEP-UP Achieve.

Yet the segment of the program that has seen the largest declines -- from nearly 1,000 students in recent years to about 500 in 2012 -- is STEP-UP Explore, aimed at recent immigrants, youths with special needs and young people in specialized programs like Upward Bound, which helps prepare low-income high schoolers for college. Government funding pays for those students to have part-time jobs working at schools such as the University of Minnesota and Minneapolis Community and Technical College.

Other employers have found that their limited staff doesn't allow for the time to supervise interns.

At Park Avenue Youth and Family Services, the number of STEP-UP interns dropped from about eight in 2011 to zero this year.

"There were a lot of issues with the STEP-UP students just not doing what they were supposed to do, and it was a lot of work to supervise them and help them understand their role," said Michelle Higgins, a program director.

Now that government funding is less certain and jobs are harder to find, leaders of the program say they're continuing to strategize about how to make the program more meaningful and oriented toward long-term careers for the students.

Said Tammy Dickinson, the city's STEP-UP director: "I think we have to find a way to do more with less."

Maya Rao • 612-673-4210