Yesenia Garcia really has no idea, yet, what she wants to do with her life. But the soon-to-be high school senior is getting closer to figuring it out, thanks to St. Paul's summer youth jobs program Right Track.
For the second summer in a row, Garcia is working at St. Paul's Ecolab in the facilities department, creating an online inventory of the company's office artwork. She did so well last year that her boss specifically asked for her to return this summer. That success has made her believe a career, a real career, is possible.
"I was so excited that they wanted me back," said the 17-year-old, who lives on the city's West Side. "It's really interesting."
Participating in St. Paul's youth summer jobs program once meant pulling shifts cleaning recreation centers, mowing golf courses or picking up trash in the parks. But Right Track, beginning its second year, is evolving beyond that. The city has beefed up its youth jobs program to include white-collar internships and summer jobs with private employers — work that provides training and the promise of advancement for hundreds of teens.
"We are talking about a pipeline of opportunities," said Catherine Penkert, Right Track project manager.
The city's traditional summer-job program — called Youth Jobs One — still exists, employing about 450 kids. It involves mostly entry-level jobs with city departments. But, following the example of Minneapolis' Step Up summer jobs program that offered teens more advanced private-sector options, Right Track last year launched Youth Jobs Two, which employed 21 kids at 14 companies. Penkert said several foundations chipped in to help subsidize the cost.
This year, more than 100 teens will have jobs as part of Youth Jobs Two. Companies participating in Right Track must employ teens for six to 10 weeks from mid-June to mid-August for at least 15 hours per week. Pay must be at least $7.25 an hour; the average wage last summer was $8.70.
The program is designed for high school juniors and seniors who have some work experience, although those with little to no experience — like Garcia — can be referred. The job at Ecolab is the first she has ever had, although you couldn't tell by her work ethic and attention to detail, said Donna Esch, Ecolab's facilities manager at its St. Paul headquarters.
"She did a very nice job for us [last summer]," Esch said of Garcia, who has cataloged more than 1,500 pieces of Ecolab art and created a database that allows employees to choose pieces to adorn their offices. "We wanted her back for her benefit and our benefit, so she can see all the experiences available in facilities."
Employers giving back
Ecolab, which in the past provided internships to students at St. Paul Humboldt High School, is an enthusiastic participant, Esch said.
"It's the right thing to do. Ecolab wants to give back," she said. "Kids are our future. [Yesenia] could be the next Ecolab employee."
A third, but smaller jobs program, Youth Jobs Pro, involves the city partnering with employers with advanced opportunities in specific fields, such as information technology. In that program, high school seniors work in advanced internships for an entire year. As that program grows, Penkert said, it could include jobs for high school graduates exploring careers in engineering or public safety.
The program is open to St. Paul residents, ages 14 to 21, who are from low-income families. The idea, Penkert said, is "building a diverse future workforce."
St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said he is impressed.
"Really, this allows that they are learning new skills as they go along," he said of a program made possible in part with federal Community Development Block Grants. "There is a huge benefit for the kids to see they have options moving forward. We have one-third of [St. Paul] kids who are unemployed right now."
During Right Track orientation a few weeks ago, groups of students gathered in classrooms at St. Paul College to learn such job-hunting and job-keeping skills as preparing professional e-mails and the importance of leaving a good impression. In one room, 16 students stood in a circle, reciting a cheer to inspire them for the road ahead.
"Hey, don't fear! We're getting our career. We're here to impress, rocking our professional dress!" they shouted.
Job coach Hannah Reed asked: "We should be confident. Does everyone feel confident?"
For students like Mariana Urbina, whose internship will be at Art-US, and Christian Kielkopf, who will work at the state's management and budget office, confidence was not an issue.
"This will be my first time working. I am so excited, I can't wait!" Urbina, 19, said.
Said Kielkopf, 16: "I think we are going to learn so much, just being able to work with companies."