These programs help high school students get real work experience

Jefferson Germain, a North Miami High School senior and aspiring dentist, practices cleaning teeth while interning at Dr. Elena Katz’s dental office. Germain is one of 1400 teens participating in Miami-Dade County’s summer internship.
Jefferson Germain, a North Miami High School senior and aspiring dentist, practices cleaning teeth while interning at Dr. Elena Katz’s dental office. Germain is one of 1400 teens participating in Miami-Dade County’s summer internship.

Suction in hand, North Miami High School senior Jefferson Germain, 17, watched as dentist Elena Katz finished a surgical procedure on a patient. The day before, he learned to scrape plaque from a denture model, man the office phones and sterilize dental equipment. To get this summer gig learning how to be a dental assistant, the aspiring dentist cold-called 13 dental offices before interviewing and interning at Katz’s dental office.

Jefferson is one of more than 1,700 high school students from 62 high schools in Miami-Dade County getting hands-on work experience this summer through the Summer Youth Internship program — one of several Miami-Dade programs designed to give teens workplace skills that can jump-start careers.

“There’s been a huge interest from students,” said Lupe Diaz, who oversees the program. Diaz is the executive director of the department of career and technical education at Miami-Dade County public schools.

Students intern 30 hours a week for five weeks, earning a total of $1,315. They also earn high school, and in some cases, college credit. The program is supported by The Children’s Trust, Miami-Dade County, Miami-Dade Public Schools and the Foundation for New Education Initiatives Inc.

Completing an internship can greatly improve future work prospects. According to a 2014 poll, 73 percent of large companies surveyed said they hired interns to find full-time employees. A survey of businesses from 2014 found that a large majority of companies believed that high school internships help students get into better colleges, provide a competitive advantage during college job searches and ultimately help students land better-paying jobs.

But competition for work opportunities is fierce, especially at the high school level.

In July 1986, 57 percent of Americans ages 16 to 19 were employed. The proportion stayed over 50 percent until 2002 when it began dropping steadily. By last July, only 36 percent were working, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics research.

And the summer employment rate for teens ages 16 to 19 has barely budged from an all-time low of 29.6 percent in 2010 following the Great Recession, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center study. The study also found lower employment rates for younger and non-white teens.

To help increase their employment opportunities, students interested in the Summer Youth Internship Program learn to write resumes and cover letters during the school year. As with any job search, they have to interview with potential employers; there’s no guarantee they will receive a job offer.

“We have many more kids in the pipeline than we had last year,” said Donovan Lee-Sin, director of public policy and community engagement at The Children’s Trust. “So the push is to make sure we have enough employers to receive and sponsor them.”

About 800 students attended the last orientation session for summer applicants, including Young Women’s Preparatory Academy senior Kalila Montgomery, 17. When it came time to interview with potential employers during the orientation at William H. Turner Technical Arts High School, Kalila was ready.

Her resume noted her passion for criminal justice, experience volunteering at juvenile court and mentoring students. She also saved a puppy from being hit by a car.

Her assigned interviewer didn’t show that night, she said, so she put in additional applications and calls before finding an internship a week before the program started.

“I learned that the job world is really serious,” Kalila said. “I had to constantly keep calling. I had to be up on my game. You may have people who want you, but you have to be on top of things.”

This year, there are more students seeking jobs than employers seeking workers. While J.P. Morgan stepped in at the last minute to sponsor 75 students, and companies pay-rolled 200 interns rather than rely on program funding, another 360 students still are on the waiting list, Diaz said.

Next year, Diaz hopes to bring even more local businesses on board.

“This is a transformational experience for these kids,” Diaz said. “It’s their entry to a possible career path.”

Students learn to manage their time and money, network with professionals, and prioritize work and school assignments, Diaz said. “They return to school more focused and realize that if they want to move up in their career pathway, they need to apply themselves.”

Karl-Heinz Cherebin, 17, a rising senior at Turner Technical, interned last year at his school store selling uniforms. He said that having an internship last summer helped him receive multiple offers and land the internship of his choice at the city of Miami Parks Department.

“Now I’m rejecting jobs instead of jobs rejecting me,” he said.

Karl-Heinz said he spent the money he earned last summer on school uniforms, business clothes and a laptop for classwork, and still had some funds left over to have some fun.

Sheldon Gaines, 18, interned last summer on the IT desk for recruiting firm Sherlock Talent.

It was a chance to “expand my vision of what I can do and what I’m talented in,” Gaines said. His internship turned into a part-time job, and then became full-time.

Elsewhere in the county, the city of Hialeah runs a summer internship program for students with disabilities. This summer, 70 students were placed in one of four workplaces: the InterContinental at Doral; FIU library; men’s clothing company Ike Behar; and Slade Park. Jobs include shelving books, helping with quality control and cleaning. Students are paid $500 for seven weeks.

“Many of these students have been told their whole lives, you’re going to work at Publix,” program director Cynthia Benitez said. And while the supermarket chain is an option, she said, the goal of the program is to expose them to more job possibilities.

“We are like a stepping stone, hopefully getting them ready,” Benitez said.

In Opa-locka’s Thrive Innovation District, middle school and high school students can join in a free professional summer camp program offering music, dance, creative writing and tech coding. The program is funded by The Children’s Trust, the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation, the ARC Place and the Knight Foundation.

“Art and tech have been the foundation of bringing both life and 24-hour activity to the city,” said Willie Logan, president of the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation. “It was all around us but not part of us.”

The program aims to help students develop the skills to access and be part of creative industries — such as a curator, artist or stage manager, Logan said. The camps include collaborative projects in which students 3D print their props, write scripts and stage shows.

“We hope it’s fun and engaging, but the goal is that kids leave better prepared to succeed in school and in life,” he said.

This reported was supplemented by material from The Associated Press.