San Jose’s Youth Internship Program Isn’t Just About the Silicon

SJ Works is helping youth — many former gang members — land coveted careers.

(Credit: SJ Works)

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Not long after San José Mayor Sam Liccardo took office in 2015, he created a gang prevention task force to think outside the box about engaging at-risk youth. One result of the taskforce was San José (SJ) Works, an internship program designed to expose young people to different career pathways.

In the six years since, SJ Works expanded significantly and adjusted its programming to meet the needs of the youth it serves — 40 percent of whom are “gang impacted,” meaning they either live in a gang “hot spot” neighborhood or are affiliated with a gang. In six years the program has connected over 2,000 young people to an internship, employment or career service, as it modified offerings to better suit participants. To respond to requests for more one-on-one support, for example, SJ Works piloted a mentorship program during the pandemic designed to become a permanent offering to all its participants by next year.

In its first year, SJ Works served about 100 youth between ages 14 and 17 in a fairly straightforward six-week paid internship at local employers. But after listening to participant feedback, It quickly became clear it wasn’t enough to provide job connections — youth needed more services and support for their early career trajectories.

“Our training curriculum has evolved from only implementing soft-skills training and financial literacy to doing more career exploration and resume, interview and financial workshops,” says Ruby Carrasco, program manager of work2future, the local workforce development board in Santa Clara County that runs the program. “We’ve integrated curriculum that’s relevant to our youth, so it’s not something that’s repetitive or that they’ve heard before.” Participants wanted to know more about the stock market, for example; SJ Works started holding workshops on buying and selling stocks.

The internship also grew to place youth with high-growth companies in diverse sectors — not just the Silicon Valley tech industry. Youth looking for hands-on work are often paired with manufacturing companies. While the young people often expect they’ll be working in assembly lines, internship positions are more frequently with engineering departments, human resources and inspection: “They help with creating blueprints of machinery, coding, understanding the function of the company and company goals,” according to Carrasco. She adds that multiple students have been hired into the sector after completing the program.

As the waitlist grew for each six-week cohort, work2future scaled. In 2017, with more funding from the city, the program set a goal of serving and subsidizing the internships of 375 youth per year. The pandemic led to another bump in interest: “We realized a lot of these youth are financially contributing to their household,” notes Carrasco. In 2021 the program will serve 400 youth and has increased its pay from $15 to $16.50 an hour.

In 2020, the program also launched a mentoring program after youth asked for more one-on-one support and Mayor Liccardo suggested it. SJ Works further envisioned it as a way to keep tabs on participants after they left the program. “There was this missing element in that we don’t really know where a youth ends up four years from now,” Carrasco says. “We’re hoping the mentoring component helps us bring that aspect into the program, if a mentor continues working with the youth.”

A mentorship pilot launched in summer of 2020 with 30 youth to “test the waters,” as Carrasco puts it. SJ Works recruited most of the mentors from Intel, which has a San José campus and regularly hires interns from the program.

Due to the pandemic, the interns and mentors gathered digitally, as a group, to listen to speakers talk about career development and have a chance for discussion and questions. Danessa Hallman, a high school junior, participated in the pilot as she worked her internship.

“I learned so many skills, from creating a Linkedin page to learning how to navigate my personal finances,” Hallman shared in an email. “This program really brings the community into San José because everyone from all different backgrounds comes together to build relationships.” Her skills will translate this upcoming summer, as Hallman was hired by the company she’s been interning for.

Feedback from SJ Works’ pilot revealed youth wanted more one-on-one interaction with mentors, so SJ Works adapted for its latest cohort. Mentors and mentees now meet once every other week for at least 30 minutes, with group sessions held on off weeks. A female NASA engineer who spoke on career exploration led a recent session. “We’ve been getting really good feedback as we’ve moved into this hybrid model,” Carrasco says.

The goal, according to Carrasco, is to offer mentorship to every SJ Works participant alongside support by their company supervisor. SJ Works also has five job coaches on staff who support each participant with onboarding and other case management.

The program’s constant responsiveness is reflected in higher retention numbers within the six-week cohorts, which has increased from around 85 percent to the high 90th percentile, according to Carrasco. “The mayor’s office ultimately wants to see retention, they want to see numbers,” she says. “My mentality is that we need to make sure we’re satisfying these interns who are going to give us the outcome that we’re looking for.”

As the program scales to 400 youth it will continue to adjust to make sure it’s providing adequate support. “We’re never done evolving,” says Carrasco, “Because these youth are evolving every single year.”

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Emily Nonko is a social justice and solutions-oriented reporter based in Brooklyn, New York. She covers a range of topics for Next City, including arts and culture, housing, movement building and transit. 

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Tags: youthsan joseyouth unemployment

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