Standing before a room full of more than 250 Twin Cities business leaders yesterday morning, Minneapolis Public Schools Interim Superintendent Michael Goar announced a bold initiative on behalf of the district. Instead of providing 50 paid summer internship positions for disadvantaged youth, the district would stretch itself to accommodate 100 paid internships.
Capitalizing on this momentum, he challenged others in the room to follow suit, much like an auctioneer calling out for higher bids.
Those who pledge more internships stand to profit the most — not monetarily, but in equally important areas like employee engagement, as well as consumer and talent pool insight.
With a goal of securing 750 paid summer internships for 2016 youth participants, program organizers announced that 100 Twin Cities employers have pledged 626 positions. They’re still aiming to increase the number of internships by 20 percent this year — hence, the push to recruit new employers and increase commitment from current employers by the April 15 deadline.
Once all of the internship positions are locked into place, STEP-UP Achieve staff will turn their attention to preparing this year’s batch of 750 youth to succeed in their professional settings, which run the gamut from Fortune 500 companies to nonprofits and local small businesses.
The employer network is diverse. The pools of interns who compete for these positions is even more diverse.
Nearly 90 percent of these interns live in poverty, 94 percent are children of color, and roughly half are first or second-generation immigrants, Richard Davis, STEP-UP co-chair and president and CEO of U.S. Bank, said during opening remarks yesterday morng. The program gives them the resources they need to overcome these barriers to employment.
In return, the interns hold the promise of serving as a solution to the 183,000-person work-force gap projected to hit the Twin Cities by 2030.
“Our youth hold the keys to the future of our city, our region and our state,” Mayor Betsy Hodges said, pledging 50 internship positions with the city. “Their success is our collective success and the role each supervisor plays in their professional development is crucial to their future. I am very thankful for the strong commitment of each of our STEP-UP partners.”
One of the program’s longstanding partners, Xcel Energy, has developed so much respect for the program that it’s nearly doubling the number of paid interns it accepts this year, from 13 to 25.
“At Xcel Energy we’re in the midst of a tremendous work-force change,” Ben Fowke, the company’s chairman, president and CEO said. “Half of our work force will retire during the next decade. So where will we find our next generation of skilled workers? Right here in Minneapolis. We literally have these assets embedded in our community. STEP-UP Achieve is a smart business decision and a great tool to help us find and train these new workers and then keep them right here in Minneapolis.”
To date, one of the company’s interns has stayed on as an employee. The others left to further their education, Senior Vice President Judy Poferl said. The company’s next focus will be on attracting former interns back to the company.
“One of the things we’re very interested in is how do you maintain those relationship so that when they’re ready for a full-time work experience, they think of us as a good employer,” she said.
Outstanding alumna: Bisrat Fekadu
Honored as the program’s 2016 Outstanding Alumna, 25-year-old Bisrat Fekadu accepted her award during a round of applause by front-row notables like Mayor Hodges, Gov. Mark Dayton, CEO of Generation Next and STEP-UP founder R.T. Rybak, President and CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce Todd Klingel and retiring President and CEO of Achieve Minneapolis Pam Costain.
Born an Ethiopian refugee in Sudan, she came to Minnesota with her parents when she was 1 year old. She heard about the STEP-UP Achieve intern program through the Trio Upward Bound program and decided to apply after her freshman year at South High.
She landed a job with the University of Minnesota catering services, where she learned to navigate her first real professional role.
“I really appreciate the responsibility I had,” she said. “It instilled in me a sense of responsibility, integrity and the professionalism it takes to succeed.”
A Gates Millennium Scholar, she went on to study neuroscience at the University of St. Thomas, becoming the first person in her family to graduate from college — with honors, no less. She’s now completing her fourth year as a Mayo medical student, with hopes of pursuing a career in family medicine to serve at-risk populations, like immigrants and young women.
STEP-UP Achieve gave her the confidence boost she needed early on to take charge of her future. But she said the path to medical school required a lot of diligence and assertiveness on her part as well.
Now that’s she’s beginning to speak with employers again, she’s finding there’s lots of interest in the unique assets she brings to the table, including her native language skills and cross-cultural perspective.
And much to her mentors’ delight, Fekadu says she’s committed to staying in the Twin Cities as a professional.
“I want to be a bridge for my community, to the clinic, to the hospital,” she said. “That’s the best way to provide care.”