Minneapolis is calling on employers to volunteer for the city's Step Up internship program that gives young people ages 14 to 21 work experience, from small nonprofits to large corporations, during the summer.

The more than 20-year-old program provides training in the spring on financial literacy, networking and how to succeed in the internship, followed by a paid internship experience in the summer. The program pays the 14- and 15-year-olds, who typically work at the smaller community-based organizations, while the larger employers pay their older interns.

Step Up Director Tammy Dickinson said the program is a win-win. Interns get payment, industry connections and real-world experience while employers get young employees who bring new ideas. Many interns eventually go on to become full-time employees at the company, Dickinson added.

"What we hear from employers is that having a young person come into their business, it's bringing fresh energy and fresh perspectives," Dickinson said. "The customer base of a lot of their companies is changing, and it looks a lot more like our interns."

This is not the first time there has been a gap between the number of interns versus internships available, but Dickinson said the 400 internship-sized gap is concerning. If that gap isn't filled, Step Up interns not paired with a company will instead be offered a stipend for completing a five-week online career preparation course.

Step Up alumna Celia Hernandez-Payan was a translator at Hennepin County's Office of Multicultural Services for three years. That work inspired her to pursue a career in social work. Hernandez-Payan said the opportunity to work directly with an employer can't be recreated with a preparatory course.

"If I didn't have that experience and I didn't have the opportunity to be placed with an employer, I think my life would have looked very different," Hernandez-Payan said.

The program serves underrepresented youths, Dickinson said, as around 90% of interns are people of color or come from a low-income background. The program doesn't generally recruit college-educated youths who already have connections through their schools.

Dickinson believes the struggle to recruit employers this year comes down to some employers' financial worries and other internal factors.

Torrey Lau, director for academic excellence at RĂªve Academy, a nonprofit focused on teaching students digital business skills, said the non-profit has recruited more than 100 Step Up interns.

"Our students who come to us as interns, they're all really well-prepared, excited to learn and eager to do good work," Lau said.

Step Up organizers are reaching out to past employers and the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce to find more openings for interns. The program is specifically lacking finance, IT and arts opportunities this year.

Employers don't have to be in Minneapolis, but should be close by. They have until May 1 to volunteer and can contact Step Up coordinators through the city's website.

Jack O'Connor is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for Star Tribune.