Erie's Summer JAM Program Kickstarts Careers for Young People
Erie's Summer JAM program sets up for another season of providing local kids with hands on experience in the workplace.
For high school students, that first summer job can be a crucial step on the path to adulthood. Though the pay may be low and the work might be dull, these positions can teach adolescents important lessons about fiscal responsibility and professional etiquette, while encouraging them to resist the temptations that arise when school is out and the weather is warm.
Nearly 50 percent of Erie City's kids are living in poverty, and it can be tough for our young people to find meaningful work. Fortunately, Erie's Summer Jobs And More (JAM) Program was created in 2014 as "an experiment in how we can keep kids on the right track for a six week period, during which they may not have a productive opportunity," according to the Erie County Gaming and Revenue Authority's (ECGRA) Executive Director Perry Wood. The JAM Program began in 2014 by partnering at-risk youth in need of employment with local organizations that can provide work for them. The project was funded through a partnership between ECGRA, the Erie County Council, the Erie Community Foundation, the Venago Training and Development Center, and CareerStreet, a youth-oriented career training organization.
In 2014, the Summer JAM Program matched 123 young people between the ages of 16 and 21 with eight local businesses and 24 nonprofits. Participants were paid $7.25 per hour for approximately six weeks of part-time work (up to 30 hours per week).
The results were quite promising. According to data compiled by the Venago Training and Development Center, 95 percent of the participants completed the program, all thirty-two of the original employers expressed interest in coming back in 2015, and 15 of the organizations considered Summer JAM to be "a viable source for future employees."
This year's program is expanding to target 175 students, with hopes of attracting about half of its employers from the private sector. According to Perry Wood, the organization is explicitly targeting the so-called STEM disciplines (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), especially "manufacturing and health care, because those are the two strong industry sectors."
Summer JAM doesn't just drop adolescents into the laps of local organizations and hope for the best. Participants are required to complete approximately 20 hours of "soft skills" training before they are even considered for job placement. These sessions prepare young people for professional settings by focusing on dress codes, job application materials, punctuality, group work, and conflict resolution. According to George E. Espy, Vice President of Community Impact at the Erie Community Foundation, this training "is something that they're not going to get anywhere else." Though our kids might learn proper grammar in their English classes, we can't expect a high school teacher to edit their resumes.
One organization that has had great luck with the program is Gannon University. In 2014, Gannon recruited eight students and provided summer-long supervision and college-level professional training, in addition to part-time work in marketing, food services and human resources. Aside from the soft skills training they received through the JAM Program, Gannon's participants attended weekly 90-minute workshops designed to address practical issues like financial literacy, leadership training, social media etiquette, and the interview process. This year, they hope to recruit 20 students.
I spoke to Barbara Priestap, Gannon's High School Outreach Liaison, about the program's impact and she immediately highlighted the story of an East High student named Ashley McCormick. McCormick worked at the Patient Simulation Center at Gannon's Morosky College of Health Professions and Sciences, learning "how to run all of the simulation stations – the intravenous insertion, the heart and lung sounds, the emergency room procedures" and more. By the end of the summer, she was teaching summer camp students at the University how to do an IV insertion. Imagine the impact that this experience will have on a sixteen-year-old's resume – especially if she decides to pursue a career in medicine!
Wood highlights the need for the Summer JAM Program very effectively: "We have a youth employment problem in Erie County. And it's going to take multiple entities working to get Erie's youth connected to viable, family-sustaining employment opportunities. One of them – which is a relatively inexpensive intervention that can take place at a critical time in their life – is the Summer JAM Program." Through it, young people can take their first steps toward financial prosperity and local companies get a few extra helping hands in return. It's a win-win situation for everyone.
Dan Schank can be contacted at dSchank@ErieReader.com