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Learning on the job

Wisconsin State Journal

by Gayle Worland

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Some of Kalief Walker’s friends are working jobs this summer at a grocery store, a fast-food restaurant and a catering company.

Kalief, meanwhile, is taking care of a chubby rat named Boo. He’s keeping an eye on a brood of chicks, and introducing visitors at the Madison Children’s Museum to a soft-skinned gecko, his favorite animal on the job.

Kalief, 16, and soon-to-be junior at Madison’s East High School, is an alum of the Teen Employment Program at MCM. He started work at the children’s museum two summers ago through a program from Madison’s Goodman Community Center. The museum staff liked him enough to hire him on as a regular part of its Discovery Guide staff.

That’s the goal of a number of programs across Madison focused on employment for young teens — to give them the skills and the opportunities to land a good job, even a rare job, and to thrive in it.

“It’s not really a job that a lot of people have,” said Kalief, whose favorite part of his Discovery Guide duties is working in the nature center in the museum’s rooftop garden.

“I really like animals, and I’m coming here every day doing something I enjoy — taking care of the animals, showing kids the animals, making sure the kids are having a good time,” he said. “Yes, I could work in a restaurant, but I think I enjoy this more.”

Seven more teen Discovery Guides — new this year in their role, as Kalief was in 2014 — are wearing the museum’s official purple polo shirts this summer. The young teens are out on the floor of the museum, serving as some of the primary faces there as they greet visitors, clean up after them, and keep an eye on exhibits and the young patrons who use them.

“As a kid I came here and really loved the environment,” said PaDao Lor, 15, who is working at the museum this summer and will be a sophomore at West High next fall. “It’s just a place kids love, and I want to contribute to that.”

PaDao and some fellow teens at the museum got there via Common Wealth’s Youth-Business Mentoring Program, which works through Madison and Sun Prairie’s public high schools to place underrepresented youth in area jobs.

The teens receive intensive training in job-hunting, interviewing, and financial literacy to give them budgeting and savings skills. After three weeks of that skill building, each is paired with a mentor through their first four months of employment.

Robert Shively, 15, and an upcoming sophomore at La Follette High School, said he’s putting away “95 percent” of his Discovery Guide wages for college.

He’s among 135 students accepted into Common Wealth’s Youth-Business Mentoring Program each year, including the nearly two dozen holding down jobs this summer.

Along with those at the children’s museum, others are working at spots ranging from Culver’s and Old Navy to small local businesses such as Yola’s Café and Change Boutique, said Tyson Jackson, a youth employment specialist at Common Wealth.

Workers get paid a legal wage or better, Jackson said. To encourage more small businesses to come on board, Common Wealth will sometimes pay a teen’s wages in exchange for the mentoring the employer provides.

The program is geared toward 14- and 15-year-olds with barriers to employment, including “minorities, kids with economic barriers, kids that are pregnant, in the court system, any barrier that you can possibly think of,” Jackson said.

Young teens are getting their first job experiences through other programs around the city as well. Among those is the 21st Century Career Program, a program from the Urban League of Greater Madison that focuses on 8th- and 9th-grade students at Wright Middle School and middle schools in Sun Prairie.

Thirty students are on the job this summer at “sites that are generally unavailable to teens entering the workforce,” said Andrew Schilcher, the Urban League’s director of middle school programs.

“We place students in settings that would be more common for high school and even college interns,” he said. This year those sites include, among others, Alliant Energy, American Family Insurance, Madison Gas & Electric, Summit Credit Union, Sun Prairie City Hall, and UW Hospitals & Clinics.

At a critical time in a young person’s life, teen internship programs help “demystify” what it means to have a career, Schilcher explained in an email.

“For many students entering high school, these topics aren’t necessarily at the forefront of their priorities,” he said, “but decisions they make early on in high school can have significant impacts down the road when it comes to both further education and employment.”

More than 200 young people, ranging from recent high school graduates to incoming sophomores, participate in internship programs through the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, said internships and TOPS program manager Ronnicia Johnson-Walker. Nearly a quarter of those 200 youths work between 20 and 25 hours a week at area companies through the club’s TOPS Summer Internship Program.

This is the first year the Madison Children’s Museum has partnered with Common Wealth, a Dane County nonprofit focused on affordable housing, small business development and youth and adult job support and training.

“So far it’s been a really good experience on both ends,” Jackson said. “I think our kids have done a really great job there, and (the museum) does a great job mentoring the youth. They’ve been very flexible in scheduling the youth, because some of them have summer school and other obligations, such as driver’s ed.”

Jackson has seen youth workers gain “a sense of responsibility,” better communication skills and “overall self-esteem or confidence,” he said. “They feel like they can do things, they’re more empowered.”

“I think one of the standout points of growth is where you see kids saving $700 or whatever in their savings account, which kids their age don’t typically do,” he said. “I think that’s a great lesson to be learned and I think they start off with good habits that will carry through adulthood.”

The young Discovery Guides at the Madison Children’s Museum work 16 hours a week for $8.50 an hour, said Alex Jeffers, visitor services coordinator.

“We introduce them all to each (exhibit) space in the museum so we make sure we’re finding a way to take all of the knowledge, experience and skills that they’re bringing and we plug it into the organization,” he said. “So not only are they getting the most out of their experience, but we’re getting the most out of having this new set of eyes.”

“If you look at the age difference between most of these youth employees and most of the visitors at the children’s museum, they are much closer in age and experience,” he noted.

The museum was inspired, in part, to establish its Teen Employment Program after a 2015 Dane County Youth Assessment revealed a 35 percent unemployment rate for area teens of color, compared to 19 percent for all teens, said associate education director Sandra Bonnici, who oversees diversity and inclusion issues for the museum.

Those statistics urged “us to stay on course with creating a program that worked with partner agencies to address that employment gap,” she said. “In order to continue along a path of equity and access and opportunity, teens actually need those first jobs.”

Along with paychecks, Madison Children’s Museum provides its teen workers with career workshops featuring guest speakers, Bonnici said.

“We also look at our own industry, knowing that in the museum field we have a huge disparity of diversity,” she said. “So we also look at this as a way to plant a seed — ‘What does a career in the museum field look like?’”

Though he’s not sure of his career plans, Kalief has toyed with the idea of becoming a surgical assistant, he said. For now, he’s got his job working 24 hours a week for MCM.

“I learn a lot every day,” he said. “The job teaches me better communication skills, just interacting with kids — and grown-ups.”

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