Hero Yang is a 22-year-old St. Cloud State University information systems graduate who manages Hewlett Packard technology at Best Buy’s headquarters in Richfield.
Farah Dahir, 22, an information systems student at the University of Augsburg, will go to work this summer in the IT department of global manufacturer Graco, followed by an internship this fall at the accounting firm Baker Tilly.
Lindsay Harris, 35, is senior human resources manager for recruitment at Best Buy.
The three are bright and likeable, and all grew up in working-class homes where college education and middle-class business careers were largely dreams.
They are also grateful veterans of Minneapolis Step-Up, the 20-year-old vocational training program that has created 30,000 internships largely aimed at various working-class Minneapolis high school students who can become machinists or marketers.
“My parents had jobs, but they didn’t have any business connections to help me get settled or a college education,” said Harris, who worked and borrowed his way to Carleton College in addition to scholarships. . “During my first Step Up internship in high school, I did everything, including making coffee. And I made contacts. Today, one of my tasks is to manage the corporate internship program from Best Buy.”
Corporate internships were once largely reserved for the sons and daughters of corporate executives. Today, most are organized recruitment programs, often tied to colleges and universities.
Pioneering Step Up still primarily focuses on vocational training programs for high school students, including interview skills, resume writing, and workplace communication.
Labor-hungry employers are increasingly hiring interns, in part to develop the next generation of workers, whether in the US bank’s finance department or the Graco plant. A diverse pool of future workers is needed: White baby boomers, the job engine of the past 40 years, are retiring — and demographics show us they’ve had fewer than two children per couple.
State demographers and labor experts say Minnesota’s population and worker growth is coming from people of color, including immigrants. Meanwhile, the state’s unemployment rate has dropped 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 got Step Up internships at MA Mortenson and Graco. Graco manager Josh Behr had Yang shadow engineers as well as assembly workers when he was a senior at Robbinsdale Cooper High School.
“Everyone was encouraging,” Yang said. “Sometimes I can be a little embarrassed. They said I learned quickly and did a good job. It gave me confidence.”
Dahir emigrated from Ethiopia at age 11 and graduated from Minneapolis Roosevelt High. He completed Step Up internships at North Commons Park and US Bank before earning the next summer stint at Graco.
Dahir said the program helped him from an early age to “experience what I had to find out what I loved”.
Dahir looks forward to a career in IT and one day owning his own business.
About 100 employers will employ 950 Step Up interns for 10 weeks this summer, from Fortune 500 companies to small businesses such as ESG Architects, Mercury Mosaics, Tierra Encantada and Wheel Fun Rentals.
The program is still recovering from the disruptions related to COVID-19. Before the pandemic, it was placing more than 1,300 interns a year.
Step Up students over the age of 16 are paid $15 per hour. Through Achieve Minneapolis, the nonprofit academic support organization and volunteers, intern candidates receive training in soft skills in interviewing, a course in career exploration, personal finance, and resume basics, as part of the internship preparation for which they earn 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 internship program.
“It’s not even a calculated risk because we have 20 years of proven results,” Weinhagen said of Step Up. “We need a vehicle for companies to recruit more young people of color. We are still facing [racial] disparities. But Step Up is a bright spot. Everyone on my team has managed an intern at the bedroom. Interns as well as companies are enriched by Step Up interns.”
Harris said that through the Step Up initiative, 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 teen tech center program.
“When I joined Best Buy in 2018, then-CEO Hubert Joly said our corporate campus should be like our customers. We had about 100 interns and 30% were BIPOCs,” said Harris. “This year we will have 200 high school and college interns. Over 50% of BIPOC. This is our future workforce. Our stores are already very diverse and reflect their communities.”
It means a lot to Harris.
“As an African-American woman, I realized it was hard to work in places where I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me,” she said.
Now that she’s a senior executive and has a say in hiring, she wants to make sure the company keeps moving forward with hiring.