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A group of young people sit at tables in a classroom doing work and smiling at the camera.

Young people study job skills and digital literacy as part of Prairie State College’s Opportunity Works program.

SaRrah Fridge

The Opportunity Works program at Prairie State College, a community college near Chicago, offers many of the hallmarks of a classic internship program. But instead of focusing on the student body, it serves un- and underemployed 16- to 24-year-olds in the surrounding Cook County area.

Over three weeks of training before their paid internship begins, participants in the program, now in its ninth year, are taught soft skills and digital literacy. They also get stipends, laptops and gas and bus cards to help them commute to the institution.

Toward the end of the three weeks, the participants work with the program’s staff to figure out what kind of internship they might be interested in. The team utilizes a personality test to help point participants—particularly those who may not know yet what sort of career they want to explore—in the right direction.

“We encourage young people, even prior to the assessment: go back to that 8- or 9-year-old you, when people would ask, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” said Alisha Clark, the program’s executive director. “And let’s look at what that looks like compared to what this assessment reveals to you that you have the natural tendencies to be very successful in.”

Prairie State’s employer relations coordinator, Kirsten Mahone, then finds suitable internships. For those interested in things like IT or graphic design, it’s easy: they are given a position at the college itself, working in the technology or communications departments. But Mahone is also prepared to find placement even for participants who have slightly more obscure interests.

“I had one say that they wanted to be a vet tech. Never had that before, so what I did was … call [four] veterinary hospitals, and they said, ‘No, we don’t take interns,’” she said. But when she contacted the local humane society, they were happy to take the student on.

Participants don’t have to commit to an internship just because Mahone arranges it for them; each intern has a chance to review the job description before actually going to the site.

Employment or Enrollment?

The internships are six weeks long and pay $16 an hour, funded by the university through a grant from the county. Once they end, it’s not unusual for participants to enroll at Prairie State—or another institution—to get the education necessary to pursue their planned career path. Someone who interned at a pharmacy, for example, might be interested in receiving a pharmacy tech certification from Prairie State.

According to SaRrah Fridge, the program’s manager, about 7 percent of all Opportunity Works participants proceeded to enroll at Prairie State, while another 28 percent went on to study at a different postsecondary institution.

Meanwhile, 13 percent go on to work in longer-term positions at the companies where they interned.

Damari Askew, who participated in both the regular Opportunity Works program and the slightly pared-down Opportunity Summer, was offered long-term employment after both of his internships. He had to choose between working for Prairie State’s IT department—following in the footsteps of two family members who worked as IT professionals—or in the public works department of the nearby town of Flossmoor. 

Both options had pros and cons, he said; working in Flossmoor gave him new insights into how cities work and how to collaborate with other people. But his ultimate career goals were in IT—which he also planned to study at Prairie State—so he decided to keep the on-campus job.

“Even in my high school years, I took classes like website design and other coding classes that made me understand what goes on in the computer world, how to make websites, how to make games,” said Askew. “I always had an interest in computers, and going into the program … really elevated that.”

‘Help You Go Farther’

Shawn VanDerziel, president and CEO of the National Association of Colleges and Employers, stressed the importance of programs that allow participants to test out career pathways.

“People don’t know what they don’t know, so the ability for them to try something new, explore it [and] get real-world experience is a great thing for them as well, and hopefully at the end of the experiences they’ll find employment,” he said.

He also lauded the college for providing payment and transportation assistance to Opportunity Works participants, noting that transportation can be a significant barrier to employment; in one survey of job seekers in Chicago, 73.4 percent said transportation challenges had caused them to miss out on job opportunities in the past.

Mahone noted that she also works to find interns positions that are close to where they live.

“We kind of have everything that we need right here to move a young person up the ladder,” said Fridge. “They can start out with small increments, just get in an environment. And then if you want to go further, we can help you go further.”

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