“Are you comfortable talking to people? Answering phones?” asked Sohail Alami, a job coach with the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.
“I haven’t really talked on a phone, but I can manage,” 17-year-old Jonal Ferretti said.
“You seem pretty outgoing,” Alami said with a nod. The two were discussing a reception position with Free Geek, one of more than 100 government, nonprofit and corporate work sites that participate in a summer job program called SummerWorks.
Ferretti likes computers, and he knows how to fix them; but he’s never had a job. “In the past I’ve tried to apply for jobs, but I never have enough experience,” he said.
That’s about to change. SummerWorks — a program managed through Worksystems, Inc. — has placed more than 6,000 young people, ages 16 to 24, in summer jobs since its launch in 2009. This summer that number will likely break 7,000.
The program provides jobs for young adults who may lack social networks or support to find jobs on their own. The program gives priority to underrepresented youth who face challenges such as growing up in poverty, speaking a language other than English, or being at-risk of dropping out of school. Multnomah County began sponsoring the program in 2011, funding positions for 25 young adults. This year the county will invest nearly $2 million to help place more than 650 youth.
“This is good work, honorable work,” Commissioner Loretta Smith said Tuesday, June 19, during the 2018 program launch at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall. Smith spearheaded the county’s investment in SummerWorks, and she said it was bittersweet to address the youth this year, her last as a county commissioner.
She pushed each year to expand the program, securing its future with permanent funding from the county’s general fund. “If there’s one thing I’m most proud of, it’s this program,” she said. “It is unimaginable what kid of impact we can have with this program.”
Many youth from low-income and immigrant families use their SummerWorks paychecks to help their parents. Many youth make enduring social and professional connections that lead to steady jobs in sectors with broadening opportunities.
“It’s a public dollar well spent,” Smith said. “It gives kids purpose, inspiration, hope. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
In the audience was Alainya Cordero, a Benson High School graduate who’s pursuing a nursing degree. Other than volunteer work with the Veterans Administration and Kaiser, she has no relevant professional experience. This summer she’ll be paid to work at a summer camp for girls. She’s excited to earn a paycheck through SummerWorks, she said, because she believes in the program’s mission.
“It gives people a chance. And everybody deserves a chance to show their worth,” Cordero said.
Across the room, best friends Sumaya Mohamad and Peyton Nguyen settled into their seats. They’re both 22, they’re both members of immigrant families, both speak a language other than English, and both are pursuing careers in public health.
“A lot of people, especially people of color and minorities, they need resources. But they don’t know where to get them,” Nguyen said. “For my family, they feel like they’re not entitled to services.”
Both young women hope to land a position with Multnomah County Public Health, doing outreach to underserved communities.
“Working with the community is so important,” said Mohamad. “You can get a lot done if you have people on our side.”
Lauren McKinney-Craig and her friend Emma Macon, both beginning their third year with SummerWorks, have clear career goals. Macon is studying economics at Lewis & Clark College while fellow Jesuit High grad McKinney-Craig studies psychology at the University of Oregon. They’ve used their internships to figure out what they like and don’t like about potential careers. And they leveraged those professional networks for recommendations on college applications. They also learned about employee rights and money management through classes at IRCO, where job coaches talk about building a resume, networking and professional attire.
Lee Po Cha, executive director of IRCO, said he was proud to be part of the program.
“I started at IRCO as a summer job, I earned $5 an hour” he told the youth who gathered Tuesday. “That job has lasted 36 years. It’s the best summer job there was.”
Andrew Colas, owner of Colas Construction, started out as an unpaid apprentice for his father, he told the youth. He was handed the menial tasks of sweeping and cleaning up after construction crews, up to 15 hours a day. His father spread the word among management to let him know if anyone worked harder than Andrew.
“He worked me really hard,” Andrew Colas said. It was grimy, sweaty work. But it made him tough, tough enough to take over for his father and set goals of his own and find barriers to break. “For me it was a tower crane,” he said. Of all major construction projects in the Northwest, there’s never been a large project requiring a tower crane that’s been led by a black-owned construction company. “I’m going to change that,” he said.
“There are always going to be barriers, hurdles, hardships. But you have to stay steadfast,” he told the youth. “There’s never been a female president. That needs to happen. It could be one of you. There’s never been a Latino president. It can be one of you.”