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Help Needed: Workforce Development and What the Ordinary Citizen Can Do

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Shyam is a 19-year-old NYC public high school graduate and college freshman at City College of New York. After waking up at 3 a.m., enduring a two-hour commute to Manhattan from Queens and attending classes all morning, he goes on to work at his part-time job at Meringoff Properties.

Shyam is a young man of exceptional character and perseverance. Unfortunately, the fact that he is employed also makes him exceptional -- according to the Labor Department, the unemployment rate in June 2010 for youth ages 16-19 was 25.7 percent, the highest since the government began tracking the data in 1947.

The high rate is not due to economic turmoil alone; employers are reporting that young adults are not prepared for job success. In "Are They Really Ready to Work?," a survey of several hundred employers by The Conference Board and three other organizations, employers across sectors reported that young adults entering the workforce lack essential job skills, rating them "deficient" in many areas including oral communication, critical thinking and professionalism/work ethic. When asked where young adults should be prepared with the knowledge and skills needed for job success, 75.6 percent of employers said that K-12 schools should be responsible.

It is no secret that our public schools -- especially those in large, urban districts -- are under great stress already, struggling to meet testing standards for just the basic "three R's" (reading, writing, and arithmetic). "Soft skills" like those noted above in The Conference Board survey are often not taught in our schools, yet we know we cannot continue sending our graduates into the workforce without the knowledge they need to succeed.

There is a solution, though, a solution we can all be a part of: internships.

It may sound simple, but internships provide a solid foundation on which a career can be built. In addition to gaining workplace skills, a 2010 study by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation found that students who participated in work-based learning programs are more likely to see the connection between school, work and their career goals, viewing the importance of graduating college in very practical terms. Unlike summer jobs, internships are designed to support and train students while providing valuable services to businesses.

That is precisely why internship programs like PENCIL's Fellows Program were created. The Fellows Program -- run in partnership with Virtual Enterprises International (VEI) -- provides New York City public high school seniors and recent graduates with full-time, paid summer internships, as well as training, guidance and support to prepare them for the workforce. One of the largest and most efficient high school internship programs in New York State, PENCIL's Fellows Program is an effective and successful model that can be adapted around the country.

Fellows are selected from a pool of students who have participated in VEI's year-long business entrepreneurship program and have shown a strong interest in pursuing a professional career in a business environment. They develop resumes, receive tips and training in marketing themselves to prospective employers, and interview for their internships at some of the most competitive businesses in New York City.

Once hired, Fellows perform duties and work that are meaningful both to them and their employers, from filing documents and answering phones to developing websites, editing copy, evaluating data and more. And they are paid -- a crucial component of a successful internship program. For many students, working for free or for school credit is simply not an option they can afford. Equally important, the pride that comes from earning a paycheck remains with them forever.

Throughout the program, Fellows participate in workshops on business etiquette and attend career panels. They are required to complete writing assignments, reflecting on their challenges, successes and the new lessons they have learned in their internships. Fellows unanimously agree that the program has helped shaped their plans for the future, reporting improvements in work skills, self-efficacy, teamwork, professionalism and solution-seeking. The value of the model is best illustrated by the fact that dozens of Fellows alumni have gone on to accept full- or part-time positions at their host companies after the program ends.

As the American economy recovers, it is clear that too many of our students are not adequately prepared to enter the workforce. We cannot depend on public schools alone -- all of us can play a part.

Companies like JPMorgan Chase & Co., Estee Lauder and JetBlue, as well as dozens of small businesses, are recognizing the importance of investing in internships for high school students. Why? Because they are our next generation of workers, customers, clients and leaders. And because there is no better ROI than investing in the future.