Jeff Tollefson is being honored as a Youth Jobs+ Champion of Change for his innovative work to develop the discipline and skills associated with employment for our country’s youth.
A common theme for teens growing up in low-income environments is the absence of an expectation for a more positive future. A sense of hopelessness can easily set in, leading otherwise promising youth to give up and far too often, drop out. Worse yet, they turn to unhealthy behaviors and activity, such as gang violence that challenges the safety of so many of our urban neighborhoods.
But what if these teens could envision a brighter future for themselves? What if they could see and experience what a professional career feels like, what it could afford them, and begin to see the relevance of education as a key to attaining high-paying jobs, while still in high school? What positive change could we catalyze?
At Genesys Works, we’ve seen what can happen – and it’s transformational. By providing low-income youth with the guidance, tools, resources, and economic opportunities that help them see a path out of poverty and into a world of financial stability and self-sufficiency, we can begin to replace feelings of hopelessness with a vision for a brighter future.
Our program model is simple, yet life-changing. In the summer before their senior year of high school, students undergo an intensive eight-week technical and professional skills “boot camp” where they learn and develop the skills needed to succeed in the next phase of our program – a meaningful year-long paid internship. Students then work nearly 1000 hours during their senior year as business-card-carrying young professionals at one of our corporate partners, supported and guided by caring mentors and supervisors. Succeeding in a professional job helps students see that there is a place for them in the corporate world, something they might not have thought possible until experiencing it for themselves. Many choose to further their education beyond high school as a result.
Of the 389 students that were trained and placed into meaningful internships in our first five years operating in the Twin Cities, all have graduated from high school with 97% enrolling in college. More importantly, 81% have either now graduated (we celebrated our first college graduates in June) or are still enrolled and on track to graduate. Given that our students come from low-income backgrounds with 96% students of color, we are particularly proud of these young men and women who are truly beating the odds, as the bachelor’s degree attainment rate is less than 10% nationally for the demographic we serve. This is real impact. This is real change. This is what drives us to do more.
The impact on individual student lives is clear. But what may be less obvious is the impact we can have on the broader communities we serve. Take, for example, the growing skills gap we face here in Minnesota. With highly skilled baby boomers leaving the workforce en masse over the next decade, we are faced with a next generation of workers that is far more diverse, and less prepared, than ever before. Schools and companies alike need to intervene to ensure that our youth develop the advanced skills needed to be successful in the modern workplace. Genesys Works serves as a bridge connecting students with opportunities, businesses with technology-proficient workers, and schools with a program providing relevant, real-world educational opportunities for urban teens.
By connecting youth with the right opportunities and support structures at the right time, we can begin to close the educational achievement and economic opportunity gaps that fragment so many segments of our population, and in doing so, make our communities a better place to live and work for all.
Jeff Tollefson serves as Executive Director of Genesys Works – Twin Cities, a non-profit organization helping economically disadvantaged high school students to enter and thrive in the economic mainstream by providing them the knowledge and work experience required to succeed as professionals.