[Crain's Feature] Wanted: Summer Interns

By Jane Adler

How your company can partner with a nonprofit to help at-risk teens jumpstart careers

A summer job for a high school student can mean so much more than extra spending money—especially in Chicago, where too many summers lead to too much violence and despair in too many neighborhoods.

Efrain Araujo grabbed the internship lifeline, to great effect. He worked as a summer apprentice at Midtown Educational Foundation, a Chicago nonprofit that offers after-school programs for low-income youth. The program gives students an opportunity to earn money while learning about different career paths.

Araujo was an architecture apprentice for two summers, learning the basic elements of the craft and how the design of a building affects the people who live and work inside it. The program included field trips to design firms and guest lectures from practicing professionals. “I don’t think I would have gone into architecture without this program,” says Araujo, who now studies architecture at the University of Illinois-Chicago. “The apprenticeship gave me the direction I needed.”

Nonprofit organizations like MEF are teaming up with local companies to offer summer programs for unemployed youth. The programs vary widely in their scope and structure, but share the overarching goal of helping students explore career opportunities they might not have otherwise considered.

Midtown Educational Foundation offers separate high school summer internship programs for boys and girls.

Midtown Educational Foundation offers separate high school summer internship programs for boys and girls.

“Students get a realistic idea of what a career entails,” says Mike Walsh, program director at the Midtown Center for boys, an arm of the MEF. “It’s very rewarding.”

Midtown’s Metro Achievement Center for girls also offers summer apprenticeships. Together, the boys and girls programs at Midtown will host about 150 high school students this summer. The seven-week program offers teens the opportunity to explore careers in architecture, business, engineering, hospitality, law and public relations. Each student earns a stipend of up to $400 for the summer.

Local companies and industry groups play a large role in the success of Midtown’s program. Sponsors include the GE Foundation, Tellabs Foundation, Chaddick Foundation and the law firm Winston & Strawn.

The Public Relations Society of America Foundation sponsors the program in public relations. Students learn about the profession by producing an in-house newsletter and visiting local media outlets. Experts working in the field give guest lectures.

I don’t think I would have gone into architecture without this program...The apprenticeship gave me the direction I needed.
— Efrain Araujo, Midtown Alum, Architecture student at UIC

“When the students come into the program, they have no idea what public relations is,” says Ron Culp, a board member of the PRSA Foundation and professional director of the graduate program in public relations and advertising at DePaul University. “We give them a good understanding of what it’s like to work in PR.”

The program fits PRSA’s mission, Culp says. The group aims to increase diversity in the profession, and expand its employment pipeline. PRSA has created a template of its apprenticeship program at Midtown that it hopes to roll out across the country. “We’re excited about the possibilities,” Culp says.

Internships grow

The share of teens working summer jobs has dwindled since the early 1990s, according to a study by the Pew Research Center. At the same time, other studies show that internships—both paid and unpaid—are growing in popularity among companies for college and high school students alike.

A recent study by Interships.com says half of employers surveyed are offering internships or apprenticeships for high school students. The top reasons cited were to support local high schools, generate new ideas and find future employees. Students surveyed looked to gain new skills and work experience.

The Chicago-based nonprofit After School Matters offers about 1,000 paid summer positions for city high school students who work with hundreds of local companies. An apprenticeship program, which helps teens explore career options, pays them a stipend of up to $725. The internship program, designed for older teens who actually work at a company, pays $10.50 an hour. The wages are paid by After School Matters, which offers after school and summer programs for 15,000 Chicago teens.

The program needs more funding to meet the demand, according to a spokesperson for After School Matters. Companies can also help by providing volunteer mentors, and offering unused office space for career readiness classes. Companies can host interns, too.

For example, After School Matters partners with Yolobe, “Your Life Only Better”—a local tech start-up based at the 1871 incubator in the Merchandise Mart. A professional networking platform for teens, Yolobe hosts 10 high school interns during the summer. It’s a natural fit for the company, which uses consumer feedback to develop its products. “I leverage high schoolers to help run my business,” says David Douglas, founder and CEO of Yolobe.

The company’s summer interns find out what it’s like to work at a start-up. They’re part of a software development team, and attend all-day design sessions. They learn how to use application software to develop solutions to connect teens with professional resources, such as jobs.

This summer, the interns will also help plan Yolobe’s annual teen expo, which will be held next April at Navy Pier. The event will bring together thousands of teens with local companies and other organizations. “The interns execute real-world things,” says Douglas, who encourages more companies to hire high school interns.

Another program aiming to ready teens for tech careers is sponsored by Creating IT Futures Foundation, an arm of Comp TIA, a tech industry group based in Downers Grove. Last year, the group connected 90 students from five Chicago STEM high schools with 27 local companies, including CDW, Blue Cross Blue Shield and Verizon. The internships are focused on technology, such as website development, and digital and social media production.

TapGenes, a software platform for families to crowdsource health information, hosted two interns last summer through Creating IT Futures. “We’re a small team start-up, and bringing people on takes time, energy and resources, but what we got back was tremendous,” says Heather Holmes, founder and CEO of Chicago-based TapGenes. The interns provided a different perspective, Holmes says, and “helped us with our product and how we think about things.”

More help needed

In an effort to support the local community, companies often draw summer interns from nearby high schools. Tasty Catering in Elk Grove Village partners with High School District 214, which covers six high schools with 12,000 students in the northwest suburbs. The District has a student internship program and works with about 300 companies, including Tasty Catering.

Larry Walter, COO at Tasty Catering, figures the company has hired about 60 high school summer interns over the last 12 years. “It’s part of our community involvement,” says Walter. Another benefit is that the company doesn’t have to rely on hiring methods such as online advertising to find workers. Many new hires come through the internship program or by word-of-mouth referrals.

The demand for internships and other youth employment programs far outstrips the supply, sources say. Nonprofits need additional funding and more corporate partners to expand
their programs.

The Forest Preserve Foundation, which protects and restores the forest preserves of Cook County, sponsors a Youth Conservation Corps. Last year, the program had 90 slots for summer interns and 900 applicants. Allstate Insurance is a major corporate sponsor.

Interns work for 10 weeks and are paid from $12 to $18 an hour depending on their skill level. Projects include trail repair, the elimination of invasive species, tree removal and litter clean up. Commenting on the internship program, Shelley Davis, president of the Forest Preserve Foundation, says: “This program is a priority.”