Intern program is praised by both parties

Young workers say they learned valuable job skills. Their employers expect a positive impact on the region.

Posted: August 10, 2007

Today is that last day on the job for a thousand urban youth interns at local companies, an experience that gave many their first glimpse of working life.

The greatly expanded youth job initiative - a joint venture of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce and the nonprofit Philadelphia Youth Network - got high marks from interns and their employers in interviews over the last week.

There was talk among executives that the big push for summer jobs this year, which raised the number of internships from 440 last summer to 1,029 this year, could have a profound and lasting impact on the region.

Thanks to the summer program, said Michael Pearson, president of Union Packaging, of Yeadon, "when these youth enter the workforce for real, they'll have a concept of being on time, that you can't take off when you want."

Pearson said continuing to expand youth employment was critical for the region's future. "There are segments of the metro Philadelphia community where it may have two or three generations since anyone in the family had a real job."

If young people are not drawn out of impoverished backgrounds and into the workforce, they will become a burden on the region, making it less competitive and more violent, warned Pearson and other executives interviewed for this article.

The summer jobs are an important first step, said Melissa J. Orner, senior vice president of the youth network. "You can't imagine something you haven't seen. If you can't imagine a job, you cannot want it," she said.

Manij Battle-Whiteman, 16, spent the summer at Comcast Corp., working on the team that processes commissions to stores that sell the company's cable television and other services.

"I've learned to look over my work twice. I am part of a team. If my work isn't absolutely correct, money goes to where it is not supposed to be and my teammates have to work harder," Battle-Whiteman said. He aspires to go to college and become a chemical engineer.

Sanithia Scales, 18, spent "a busy summer" working for KPMG L.L.P., the big accounting and management-consulting firm, scanning client documents into a computer, among other things. Working with others improved her communications skills, which she said would help her study theater in college and become an actress.

She learned, she added, that when she worked hard and helped others, things went better in the department. "At the start of the summer," she said, "I didn't expect that I could make a difference in such a large company, but I have."

Scales is already living on her own, working nights at UPS Inc., a part-time job that provides income for her education and health-care benefits.

The job is only part of the experience for the summer interns. The youth network coached their mentors at work and held weekly classes and exercises on a wide range of workplace issues, including communication, teamwork, and understanding how work gets done.

The interns were assigned to interview the chief executive officers where they worked, and to draw an organizational chart of the company.

"We also played memory games," said Briana Bailey, 18, whose internship at the youth network was funded by a local business. She said this helped her to listen better and remember instructions.

The interns also got advice and answers to their questions from local entrepreneurs and executives during several forums.

The work the youth network does behind the scenes "is Herculean," said Mark S. Schweiker, president of the chamber.

Joseph A. Frick, chief executive of Independence Blue Cross, is making bringing youth into the workforce the top priority of his two-year term as the chamber's board chairman.

"I've had exposure to so many different leaders who have talked about how important their mentors were at a young age, and how important it was to have workplace experience," Frick said.

Jerry Maginnis, managing partner of the KPMG Philadelphia office, said this summer was his firm's first experience with high school interns. "We were very surprised at how successful it was, how productive the interns were," he said.

The firm also benefits long-term, he said. "There is this whole Generation X and Y thing going on. Our ability to stay connected helps make us more successful as an organization," Maginnis said.

Pearson, the Union Packaging CEO, talks more bluntly about the urgency of more jobs and mentoring for youth.

"I'm an example of a guy who got a lot of attention and help when I was a poor black kid in West Philadelphia, and I was able to exceed expectations. Fortunately, I had a father who was a presence in my life. Many of these young people are in single-parent homes," Pearson said.

"We've got to give them the soft skills, not just hard skills, or they're going to fail. Even if they start at menial tasks, employers are going to expect them to be on time," he said.

Today's youth need work opportunities and role models, Pearson added, "to be culturally brought out of machismo. I am an African American male. I understand the need to establish manhood. I hope we can establish that manhood is being responsible . . . I have guys working for me with three or four child-support payments. They're living with their mother because they can't afford anything else."

Pearson said his summer interns were among his hardest workers, and he hopes "it was a wake-up call to work around people who have had hard knocks."


Philadelphia Youth Network

What: An independent nonprofit corporation that works with the school district and city, state and federal agencies to prepare youth for employment.

Goal: To promote and coordinate jobs, internships and training programs for young people 14 and older, funded by employers, government programs and foundations.

Results: During 2007, 8,226 young people were served by its programs.

Contact: 267-502-3800; www.pyninc.org.

SOURCE: PYN


Contact staff writer Henry J. Holcomb at 215-854-2614 or hholcomb@phillynews.com

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