Mayor Steinberg wins state support for idea of paid internships for Sacramento high schoolers

Darrell Steinberg sworn in as Sacramento’s 56th mayor

Six months after winning a decisive victory in the June primary, Darrell Steinberg was sworn in as mayor on Tuesday night.
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Six months after winning a decisive victory in the June primary, Darrell Steinberg was sworn in as mayor on Tuesday night.

On his third day as Sacramento mayor, Darrell Steinberg made progress toward fulfilling his campaign promise to fund more internships for high school students in the city.

The state Employment Training Panel, a state agency that provides financial support for vocational training, voted Friday to conceptually approve a first-of-its-kind pilot program that could supply up to $950,000 to train and pay as many as 500 kids from five city high schools with internships designed as pathways to long-term careers. A formal proposal still needs to be fleshed out by the city.

The money largely would go to reimbursing employees and trainers.

The state panel’s quick support of Steinberg’s idea is the first sign that his connections as the former leader of the state Senate could pay off with more money for Sacramento.

During his swearing-in speech Tuesday, Steinberg said he intended to provide paid internships to at least 50 percent of juniors and seniors in city schools within four years. The internships would aim to give hands-on vocational training to kids who may not be immediately bound for college.

Then, on Friday, Steinberg persuaded the training panel, which included one member he previously appointed, to act on his request.

“It is the beginning of our promise on our youth agenda,” Steinberg said Thursday. “My view is that remediation is very important, but preventing dropouts and preventing unemployment and under-employment are more important ... This is a way for us to have a broader conversation and to develop a broader agenda that really links public education and the workforce.”

The Employment Training Panel is a state agency funded through a payroll tax on employers. Steinberg’s proposal would be the first time the agency has funded a program for teenagers still in school. Steinberg said the shift in focus from existing workforce members to those about to transition into the job market was crucial for changing outcomes for kids from neighborhoods where opportunities and expectations can be low, and where at-risk teenagers often lack basic employment skills when they graduate from high school.

The suggested program would provide participating kids with two months of job and life-skills training during the summer between their junior and senior years, then a yearlong paid internship of at least 10 hours per week during their senior year. Steinberg said that of the initial group, about 350 kids would be guaranteed internship placement in their senior year, with the goal of finding spots for all participants.

The program would run at Hiram Johnson, Luther Burbank, Grant, Valley Hi and the Arthur A. Benjamin Heath Professions high schools.

“The idea would be that those experiences would then lead those students to either know better what they want to do when they graduate high school and or eventually lead to full-time employment,” said Steinberg.

Steinberg pitched the idea to the enthusiastic training panel board on Friday morning. The employment board voted unanimously to approve the “concept” and guidelines for the program, with specifics to be voted on when the city crafts a formal proposal in coming months.

“We’ve sent this message out that if you don’t go to college there is kind of something wrong with you, that you are already in your youth not meeting the mark ... That’s just wrong,” said training panel Chairman Barry Broad, a local attorney and lobbyist who was appointed by Steinberg as well as other Senate leaders before and after him.

Despite the potential funding, Steinberg will still need to find employers willing to commit to hiring the students.

Employment board member Janie Roberts, a PepsiCo executive who supported Steinberg’s plan, cautioned that many young adults have barriers that make it difficult for companies to hire them. She said PepsiCo had a hard time recruiting young adults in the Central Valley in the past because they could not pass drug screenings or did not meet other minimum qualifications.

“We wanted these people to come into our workforce. They just weren’t qualified,” Roberts said.

Steinberg said he envisioned outreach eventually happening for freshman and sophomores to address those issues and prepare kids at an early age to understand employers’ expectations.

“We want to include life skills and civic education and all of the other intangibles that are essential to someone to succeed in the workforce,” he said.

Broad also cautioned that funding would be tied to employer retention of the trained students. The panel would require employers to keep the kids on the payroll for at least 90 days after training or 500 hours in a 272-day period in order to qualify for reimbursement of costs. He said that finding employers willing to make those guarantees could be challenging.

“The link that’s always been most difficult in this issue is you have to have an employer that’s willing to make a commitment to a kid, and maybe a troubled kid, that there is a job, a paid job, waiting for you if you stay in school, if you dedicate yourself to do this training,” said Broad. “Employers are reticent to do that in this society.”

Seeking to address such concerns, Steinberg brought an entourage to Friday’s meeting that included representatives from the Sacramento-Sierra Building Trades, the Sacramento Central Labor Council, Kaiser Permanente, the California Restaurant Association and others. Many of these groups, particularly the Building Trades, already run extensive internship or apprenticeship programs, and Steinberg suggested they could facilitate employer participation.

Alycia Harshfield, executive director of the California Restaurant Association’s Educational Foundation, said Steinberg’s program could be a natural extension for its existing internship program, and it might be willing to try to “bring employers into the picture.”

SMUD is another of the public-sector partners Steinberg has already approached. The utilities company runs an internship program for about 25 kids each year, and receives up to 300 applications for those spots, said SMUD education relations strategist Susan Wheeler. Participants are paid a little more than minimum wage, and are assigned “meaningful” work meant to train them for future careers in areas including engineering and marketing, she said.

“We make sure they’re not just sitting in the corner scanning documents,” Wheeler said.

Devaughn Ogles is one of the students who participated in SMUD’s program in 2012. Now 22 and a senior in engineering and applied mathematics at University of California, Merced, he spent the summer between his junior and senior year of high school working as an assistant to Wheeler.

It was his “first job ever” and an “extremely valuable” experience, he said. The high school internship helped him win an engineering internship with SMUD later, and taught him that “people who make six figures ... are just everyday people who care about the community they live in.”

Ogles said that along with job skills, the internship changed how he thought.

“It kind of set me up for the rest of my life, honestly,’ Ogles said. “I started looking at things from a different perspective.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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