In a jobless recovery, it's nice to celebrate a summer jobs program for some high school kids who appreciated both the experience and the cash.

"Minneapolis Step-Up is the most successful summer jobs program in America," Richard Davis, longtime co-chairman of Step-Up and CEO of U.S. Bancorp, told the Minneapolis high school kids who gathered to celebrate their experience at a reception last week.

"You have 'stepped up,' and we have a vested interest in your future. I'm asking you, on behalf of 178 participating employers, to make something of it in the future."

Step-Up, the vision of Mayor R.T. Rybak and several employers in 2002 to help kids, most of whom come from low-income families, to learn about the work world through a job they otherwise wouldn't experience. The program fell short by several hundred compared with the number of kids who started the application process last winter.

Still, thanks to U.S. Bank, Allianz Life, HealthPartners, the University of Minnesota, Jefferson Lines, Memorial Blood Centers, RSP Architects and scores of other employers, a record 1,350 students were placed. And that's more than similar programs in cities around the country.

Every kid goes through a formal application-and-orientation process.

"I was not confident at first," said Sadiya Abdirahman, a 2010 graduate of Roosevelt High, who worked in technology operations for U.S. Bank in St. Paul. "But I learned the job and became proficient."

Abdirahman, 20, plans to attend Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC) this fall before finishing her college degree at a four-year university.

Similarly, Chee Xiong, 18, a South High grad who also will start college at MCTC, said it was confusing at first to understand ordering and billing procedures to support technology purchases and installations at US Bank locations around the country. But he figured it out and prospered.

"They did well," said Brian Volp, their supervisor. "We process 11,000 invoices a month. They had to get comfortable with a lot."

Employees of the future

Abdirahman, naturally reserved, got so comfortable that she was a top performer in one of the department's team-building outings devoted to a mock Renaissance Festival in which she jousted with much-larger co-workers in a spongy-lance competition.

"If I hadn't had a job through Step-Up, I would have been home, or hanging out with friends" said Alexis Harris, 15, a junior at Washburn High, who worked at Kaleidoscope Place, a nonprofit child care business. "I helped kids read, write, do math, do art," and she supervised field trips.

The program made a big difference to Derrick Charleston, 20, who had dropped out of high school for a bit but returned to get his degree from an alternative school on the North Side.

He said: "The job at Nilan, Johnson & Lewis, where I worked with documents and on the computer and met lawyers, judges and others, pushed me to be a better person and expect more from myself. It helped me to prioritize what fits my time and goals. This was my first job, and I had to show up on time and look good.

"I loved it," said Harris, who will attend Hennepin Technical College in the fall.

The jobs paid a minimum of $7.25 per hour for up to 40 hours and eight to 12 weeks of work.

Minneapolis public high schools graduate within four years only about half of their students who start each year, although when alternative schools and a fifth year are added, the number tops 80 percent. About half the kids live in poverty, move frequently and often come from households where education may not be highly valued.

Demographers and labor economists say that, despite today's high unemployment rate, we're going to need every worker we can get over the next 20 years as baby boomers retire.

Step-Up is a great program because it helps connect the importance of finishing high school and preparing for the future with the world of work for kids as young as 14 and 15. I salute the kids and savvy employers who came together to make a great investment in a better future for our economy and community.

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144 •