Minneapolis Step Up expands career opportunities for diverse youth

Hero Yang is a 22-year-old Information Systems graduate from St. Cloud State University who oversees Hewlett Packard’s technology at Best Buy’s Richfield headquarters.

Farah Dahir, 22, is studying business informatics at the University of Augsburg and will be joining the IT department of global manufacturer Graco this summer, followed by an internship at auditing firm Baker Tilly in the fall.

Lindsay Harris, 35, is senior human resources manager for recruitment at Best Buy.

Bright and personable, the three all grew up in working-class families where college educations and middle-class careers were largely dreams.

They’re also grateful veterans of Minneapolis Step-Up, the now 20-year-old job-training program that has created 30,000 internships aimed primarily at various working-class Minneapolis high school students who might end up becoming machinists or marketers will.

“My parents had jobs, but they didn’t have business connections to help me build or a college background,” said Harris, who worked through Carleton College alongside scholarships and borrowed her way. “In my first Step-Up internship in high school, I did everything, including making coffee. And I made contacts. Today, one of my responsibilities is to lead Best Buy’s corporate internship program.”

Corporate internships were once largely reserved for the sons and daughters of corporate leaders. Today, most are organized recruitment programs, often with ties to colleges and universities.

Pioneering Step Up continues to focus primarily on professional training programs for high school students, including interview skills, resume writing and workplace communication.

Labor-hungry employers are increasingly hiring interns, in part to train the next generation of workers, whether on the Treasury Department of the US bank or on the Graco factory floor. A diverse pool of future workers is needed: White baby boomers, the employment engines of the last 40 years, are retiring — and demographics tell us they’ve had fewer than two children per couple.

State demographers and labor experts say Minnesota’s population and labor growth has come from people of color, including immigrants. Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment rate has fallen to 2.5% and the number of job openings is higher than the number of officially unemployed.

Yang, whose first internship was at a Minneapolis park at age 15, also earned Step Up internships at MA Mortenson and Graco. Graco manager Josh Behr employed Yang as shadow engineers and assembly workers when he was a senior at Robbinsdale Cooper High School.

“Everyone was encouraging,” Yang said. “Sometimes I can be a little self-conscious. They said I learned quickly and did a good job. That gave me confidence.”

Dahir emigrated from Ethiopia when he was 11 and is a graduate of Minneapolis Roosevelt High. He completed step-up internships at North Commons Park and US Bank before earning upcoming summer time at Graco.

Dahir said the program helped him “experience what I have, to find out what I like,” from a young age.

Dahir is looking forward to a career in IT and to one day owning his own business.

About 100 employers will hire 950 Step Up interns for 10 weeks this summer, ranging from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses like ESG Architects, Mercury Mosaics, Tierra Encantada and Wheel Fun Rentals.

The program is still recovering from the COVID-19 disruptions. Before the pandemic, more than 1,300 interns were placed annually.

Step-Up students over the age of 16 are $15 per hour. Through Achieve Minneapolis, the nonprofit school support organization and volunteers, interns receive soft-skill interview training, a career exploration course, personal finance, and resume basics as part of internship preparation, earning up to $600.

Most come from low-income families.

Jonathan Weinhagen, CEO of the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce, serves as a Step Up mentor and his organization participates in the intern program.

“This isn’t even a calculated risk because we have 20 years of proven results,” Weinhagen said of Step Up. “We need a means for companies to recruit more youth of color. We’re still in front of it [racial] Differences. But Step Up is a bright spot. Everyone on my team has managed an intern at the chamber. Both interns and companies are enriched by Step Up interns.”

Harris said that thanks to Step Up’s leadership, companies like Best Buy have expanded their internship pool to include Step Up, two-year colleges and nonprofit training programs. Best Buy also has its own Tech Center program for teens.

“When I joined Best Buy in 2018, then-CEO Hubert Joly said we wanted our corporate campus to look like our customers. We had around 100 interns and 30% were BIPOC,” Harris said. “This year we will have 200 high school and college interns. More than 50% BIPOC. This is our future workforce. Our businesses are already very diverse and reflect their communities.”

It means a lot to Harris.

“As an African American, I realized that it’s difficult to work in places where I haven’t seen a lot of people who looked like me,” she said.

Now that she’s an executive with a say in hiring, she wants to make sure the company keeps moving forward on hiring.

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