*A shortened version of this article previously appeared in the October edition of HSD’s monthly Lifelines newsletter. Click here to subscribe now.
When the Seattle Youth Employment Program (SYEP) launched its new academic year program model last year, certainly no one could have predicted that a worldwide pandemic would impact the best laid plans of staff members.
Beginning last October, participants attended weekly sessions and career discovery days, and participated in team activities, skills workshops, one-on-one coaching and support services, and assessments. Youth participants could earn a maximum stipend of $300 per quarter; and those who completed the series were eligible for a 150-hour internship paying $16 per hour in the summer of 2020.
Then COVID-19 came along. SYEP had to quickly adapt to a world where academic learning happens online and students and workers train and interact with each other virtually—utilizing laptops, cell phones, and Microsoft Teams and other social software apps.
Betty Gebrejawaria was in the school year program. She learned job readiness skills like writing a resume and cover letter and how to prepare for an interview. “As a high school student, I found this really helpful because these are the years where I start to join the job field and SYEP helped me land my first internship,” she shared.
She was chosen as an intern with SYEP, helping to run the annual summer program, which operated as a virtual classroom for participants. She helped provide program support like taking attendance during the job trainings and setting up and running the virtual sessions. “The virtual environment was very new for many people like myself,” said Betty. “Although we encountered many technical issues, everyone was really patient, very kind, and helpful. And everyone’s optimistic attitude really impacted how smooth the program went. I wouldn’t change a thing. It was all last minute, but the program was successful.”
“Participating in the virtual SYEP program over the summer was exciting,” agreed SYEP participant Kidus Solomon. “The staff put together very informative and well-designed presentations that helped me stay engaged and interested on the topics. It’s just a well-designed program to help you succeed.”
Among the many positive impacts on his life so far, Kidus says SYEP helped him create his first resume, which he then used to apply for a job in the middle of the pandemic.
For SYEP intern Calvin Fung, one of the positive impacts this summer was that the job helped him to establish a schedule and have a reason to wake up and feel valuable. “You know, usually you are getting paid for contributing, helping out, providing your insight. And how a young person thinks.” He thinks it is really important that youth serve as interns along with the adult mentors to program participants. He believes they have a special effect, because there’s a difference between “an adult speaking to you, as compared to a young person speaking to another young person.”
Meeting regularly with both assigned counselors and peers helped Gheeda Hamam keep a check on her hours and her progress with the program. Counselors were very helpful with providing resources and assistance. They were also great at being responsive to her emails and helped her stay on track with accessing links and using chat.
She feels that “SYEP has taught me to learn soft skills such as time management, conflict resolution, team building, and communication. And it also taught me skills like resume building and creating the accounts for LinkedIn and NeoGov.” (NeoGov is the online job application platform used by the City of Seattle and several other government and public agencies in the area for their hiring processes.)
Leland Adams is also a previous SYEP participant who landed a summer internship helping to support the program, which he said “taught me a bunch about virtual platforms, which I’m very grateful for because moving forward in I think a lot of people’s careers, and education as well, we will be using those virtual platforms.”
In the virtual SYEP setting, the interns had to become comfortable communicating with managers and peers, as well as with the summer students. The students needed to understand what was expected of them online in the virtual session instead of an office internship and what SYEP expected for them to get out of the program. “And so, just working through and communicating a lot because this was the pilot program to everything that we were doing,” said Leland. “We were pretty much setting the foundation for everything that this program was going to be, and everything that it could become in the future.”
When asked what some of the positives and the negatives were about not being able to be in person with participants, Leland really saw the positives. “I feel like I gained a new skill set, right? Being able to work from home. Because I think that’s something in the future that we’re going to be seeing a lot of, and just being able to work on projects online …. Not everybody is going to be able to access the office in the future.”
Gheeda nodded as he was speaking, and added that “being able to finish a project online is a really good skill because you have to be independent and kind of just go off from the instructions that were given online.” That’s not something that’s easy to do, but she believes it will also be an increasingly important ability in the future, where assistance isn’t just on the other side of a cubicle wall or elsewhere in a physical office.
I feel like I gained a new skill set, right? Being able to work from home. Because I think that’s something in the future that we’re going to be seeing a lot of, and just being able to work on projects online …. Not everybody is going to be able to access the office in the future.Leland Adams, SYEP Summer Intern
For many office workers prior to this global pandemic, while resume writing and interviewing skills were important to learn as they started out, it was equally as important to focus on dressing for an office environment, planning a commute, and showing up on time. Our current state may be, unexpectedly, really preparing these youth for a future where they may be on a team with people who are in Seattle, Europe, India, and Australia and all coming in at different times, and working on projects together, and leaving things in the chat box for someone to pick up when they start their day. Many of the tech jobs in our area already look like this. So there are lots of skills that SYEP is having to build into the program now, but that are actually going to be much more valuable as the workplace continues to change.
When asked about how SYEP has had a positive impact on his life, Leland said it’s really helped him to grow his networks while being a student at the University of Washington. It’s helped him to feel more confident, and “hopefully that opens some doors for me in the future.”
SYEP staff are happy to report that his hopes may have been realized, as Leland recently accepted another internship position with the King County Department of Human Resources, where he will support the development of a new job readiness program. This program seeks to establish pathways of employment for young men of color, specifically black men in high school and college.