It’s mid-June in New Orleans, and on the 11th floor of a mid-rise building in downtown, 65 high school students shift nervously in their chairs. One by one, Ryan Hitchens, an educator-turned-program manager, calls the teenagers—many dressed in suits and ties, dresses and pumps—to the front of the room to receive their summer internship offer letters. They erupt into a chorus of snaps to commend one another after each placement is announced:
A Fortune 500 energy company. A tech startup. A construction firm.
“Congratulations, everybody,” Hitchens tells the students before attempting to soothe the jitters that can visit anyone who is about to start a new job. “There are many of you who are like ‘now what?’ ”
He tells them to create a transportation plan for getting to their job and draft an introductory email to their future supervisor.
Teaching these New Orleans public school students how to function in a professional environment is exactly the point of YouthForce Nola, a program aimed at increasing the number of New Orleans youth entering expanding career fields in the city.
Noahble Roberson, a New Orleans Charter Science & Math High School student who can rattle off statistics about the effect of meat processing on global warming, was happy to be placed at Port of New Orleans, the organization overseeing the city’s harbor operations.
“I consider myself an environmentalist,” he said. “I feel like I can bring a lot to the Port of New Orleans…I do my research.”
Dale Jeudi, 15, a sophomore at an Algiers charter school, said he was nervous about starting his internship and meeting new people at Spears Group, a marketing consulting firm, but he appreciated all he had learned from YouthForce Nola.
“It taught me a lot about email. I would not check my email (before),” he said. “Now, I have to check it 24/7.”
Launched in 2015, YouthForce Nola works with local schools to identify dozens of high-achieving high school juniors and seniors to participate in job-skills classes and summer internships that pay $8 an hour for 150 hours of work and training. The summer session ended in July but a new crop of fall student interns have already started their training.
The program is run by Educate Now, an education reform nonprofit organization, and supported by the city’s public school districts, Mayor Mitch Landrieu, and local and national business groups. JP Morgan Chase and Bloomberg Philanthropies, the foundation of former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, collectively chipped in $7.5 million—about half of the program’s operating budget. In addition to funding the internship program, the money also helps high schools start or redesign their own career and technical training programs.
YouthForce Nola arrived in New Orleans at a time when the region had experienced significant and rapid change to its education sector. Hurricane Katrina swept away the city’s public school system, and with it neighborhood-based career and technical education programs for high schoolers. The expansion of charter schools further decentralized New Orleans’ school system, making it hard for individual schools to leverage their resources to replace those programs.
In response, YouthForce Nola’s leaders said they hope to create a pipeline for moving local talent into the city’s expanding industries, as well as reduce the high number of unemployed young people.
The New Orleans area has the third-highest percentage of “opportunity youth” — people ages 16 to 24 who are neither working nor in school — among the top 50 metro areas in the U.S., according to a report released last year by The Cowen Institute at Tulane University. Some 26,000 New Orleanians fit that description, and more than 50 percent of them have a high school diploma, said Cate Swinburn, vice president of programs at Educate Now.
“That fact stunned a lot of people and had a lot of people scratching their heads (wondering) what are we doing,” Swinburn said. “We are losing young people.”
In a column supportive of YouthForce Nola published earlier this year, the Times-Picayune Editorial Board gave a grim prediction of the odds facing jobless youth.
“Hundreds of young people are leaving high school unprepared. Without the skills to get a decent paying job, they will struggle to have a comfortable life,” the newspaper wrote. “Many may end up in poverty.”
At the same time, there is a growing awareness among city officials and business leaders about the changing labor market in New Orleans. In 2013, the city government and the New Orleans Business Alliance published a report that found that the city had more high-wage earners and fewer low-wage households than before Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005. Adding to the job market, the report found, are five industries that will be key to the city’s future economic growth: advanced manufacturing, transportation and logistics, sustainable industries, creative digital media, and bio-innovation and health services.
“These are what we call high-wage, high-demand jobs,” Swinburn said. “Employers are currently recruiting people from around the world to fill these jobs.”
YouthForce Nola’s goal is to give these employers a pool of qualified workers close to home. The students first participate in a two weeks-long training program that teaches a range of so-called soft skills essential in the workplace.
They are asked to create vision boards outlining their goals and what it might take to achieve them. They take lessons in common business—and life—practices such as how to eat with the proper utensils, how to shake a colleague’s hand and the polite way to make small talk at an office water cooler.
The students draft emails to prospective employers, write a resume and practice an “elevator pitch” to introduce themselves to people in professional environments. Then there’s a mixer, where company managers chat with students to gauge their interest and fit for a summer internship. Students are then assigned to an organization or company based on their preferences and feedback from employers.
George Wilson, board chairman of Barriere Construction, accepted two interns from YouthForce Nola, a decision he called a natural extension of his company’s existing college internship program.
He said his industry is one that is likely to see a boom: FEMA recently agreed to pay New Orleans an extra $2 billion to fix its streets and water pipes, and several petrochemical plants are starting or expanding just outside the city. This growth is likely to produce more jobs, he said.
“That’s been a wonderful recruiting tool for us,” said Wilson. “Just applying that to high school students wasn’t a very hard extrapolation.”
Ten students were matched with Ochsner Health System, the largest health care system in Louisiana. They take professional development classes on topics such as employee engagement and generational differences, shadow Ochsner employees and perform light office work, said program manager Ymine Leon.
“We were completely impressed with all of the kids, even the kids that were not matched to Ochsner,” Leon said. “At the employee meet-and-greet, meaningful conversations came from interacting with the interns. They had wonderful questions as they continue to explore what career path they ultimately choose.”
Jamiya Shine, 17, said YouthForce Nola taught her the value of working in teams and that sometimes she has to compromise to reach her goals. “I really had my eyes opened,” she said. “I learned I can't always do things my way. I have to work with others.”
These are lessons that Shine, who was already certified as a nursing assistant, plans to take with her at Ochsner and beyond as she continues to explore the health care field.
“The nervousness will all blow over,” she said of her internship. “I know what it takes to work in a place like this.”
Disclosure: The 74 is partially funded by Bloomberg Philanthropies.Submit a Letter to the Editor