Could first jobs mean better futures for these teens? Mayor hopes so

Her internship is teaching her leadership skills and responsibility

Laura Herrera, a high school senior, reflects on her time working at the public library in Sacramento's internship program.
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Laura Herrera, a high school senior, reflects on her time working at the public library in Sacramento's internship program.

Seventeen, shy and a self-described homebody, Kamryn Skeaton isn’t “college material,” she says. But a few weeks into a new city-sponsored internship at the South Natomas library, she’s starting to think about herself differently.

She is a junior at Leroy Green Academy, a quirky teen who loves weightlifting, cooking and all types of mustard. Now, she is also an intern.

“I didn’t know I had such a good work ethic until I had this job,” Skeaton said. “I think my grandmother, my Noni, knew all along that I can do things. Even though she told me, I didn’t listen. Now I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’ 

Skeaton is one of about 210 teenagers to take advantage of a new Sacramento city work program that guarantees a minimum-wage, white-collar job to any 16-and-older kid who wants one from 29 local schools. The program still has a long list of teens waiting to be placed, but some of those lucky enough to land their first paid position said the chance to be in a professional setting rather than the usual service and retail-industry jobs available to young workers has altered how they see themselves and their futures – a hoped-for outcome in a seat-of-the-pants effort that’s as much social experiment as employment plan.

“It’s an opportunity that not many people could get. It can open up a lot of doors for you,” said Skeaton. “I think I’m ahead of the curve.”

Even though the jobs come with a paycheck, the payoff isn’t the money, said Mayor Darrell Steinberg. He conceived the program before taking office last year to give local kids, particularly those with economic and social barriers, the chance to climb into the middle class or higher. He especially hopes they will stay in Sacramento and become part of a local workforce that could transform Sacramento into a northern outpost of Silicon Valley, another of his political pushes.

Steinberg persuaded the state to put $928,000 in financial backing usually reserved for older workers into the first-of-its-kind effort, arguing that training kids early would negate the need to retrain them later.

“If we want to be a great city, we have to connect that growth to our neighborhoods and especially the kids,” said Steinberg. “It’s our obligation to make sure our kids are educated and trained and first in line for those jobs.”

This entry-level exposure to professional life is critical as income inequality continues to grow around the United States, he said.

“McDonald’s, I’m not saying that’s a bad job, but it’s limiting, both the experience itself and your upward mobility,” said Steinberg. “It’s not just the job duties they perform, it’s also being exposed to adults who have made it and who share their stories and who act as role models. It’s what they observe as much as what they do. A lot of kids, especially from the neighborhoods, they don’t get those experiences so they wonder, ‘What is my future?’ 

In Sacramento, household incomes are on the rise but low-income families are still lagging. The poorest 20 percent of local households saw average incomes rise to $14,000 in 2016, up about a meager $700 from the prior year, after adjusting for inflation. The richest 5 percent of local households saw their average incomes rise to $390,000 in 2016, up more than $50,000 from the previous year, after adjusting for inflation.

Some of that discrepancy can be traced to early work experience.

A recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research tracked six decades of income for Americans from 1957 to 2013 and found real wages adjusted for inflation have declined for most men. Women’s wages went up, but only because of increasing opportunities. Researchers traced the lower earnings to men’s early pay – the less they made in their first years working, the less they made over a lifetime.

Like most teens, Laura Herrera, a junior at the School of Engineering & Sciences in the Pocket Greenhaven area, isn’t worried about her lifetime earnings. But she does know what she wants from her future: to become a Sacramento police officer.

Herrera lives in the last house on a Meadowview side street that ends in empty, weed-filled lots running up to the light-rail tracks. A red sheet serves as a curtain on the front window and a hip-high statue of the Virgin Mary guards the porch. Her parents immigrated from Mexico and her mom, Blanca Zuniga, speaks little English. Zuniga cleans houses while Herrera’s father, German, installs windows, sometimes driving as far as San Jose for work.

Like Skeaton, Herrera is working at her local library, shelving books. She was thinking about getting a fast food job when her high school history teacher told the class about the internships. She applied online and two weeks later got an email with a promise of work.

“It’s like, ‘Oh my God, I’m almost an adult now,’ ” she said.

‘A better life’

Zuniga knows her eldest daughter has a ways to go before she’s a grown-up, much less a cop, but she sees the library as part of the opportunity she wanted for her children when she crossed the border, and a step toward a life that was out of reach when she was young.

“I had to quit school and go to work when I was her age,” said Zuniga of her own teenage years in Mexicali. “I used to wash cars, sell candy. I worked for a company that sold concert tickets, whatever work one can find. ... That’s why we came here, for a better way of life. I didn’t want the kids to struggle like we did. ... This is an experience, a door that’s opened for her.”

Across town at the North Sacramento-Hagginwood library, Raven McDonald is also shelving books for her internship, and also has parents who want her to have a better life than their own.

With dark hair in braids dyed red and almond-shaped eyes, McDonald comes across as quiet but capable. She began her internship in late June, and is continuing now that her junior year at Grant Union High has started. She hopes to become a nurse, like her aunt.

McDonald said when she heard about the program, she didn’t believe it could be a guaranteed job. She had applied to the Parks Department when she was about 15, but didn’t get hired. Her mom, Fili Lewis, remembers dozens of kids applying for a handful of positions.

Lewis is a dental hygienist and McDonald’s dad, Ricky, is a security guard. Lewis said they both “just work entry-level jobs, so that’s why we wanted more for her.”

When McDonald received an email telling her she was hired, “I was shocked,” she said. “I never thought I would work in a library.”

Her first check was about $115 dollars. She used it to fix the broken screen on her phone. “It felt like I worked hard for it, like I’m a mature teen doing something,” she said. “I think it’s going to help me later in life. It’s going to look good on my part that I wasn’t just a troubled teen. I was willing to work hard and do something ... I know my parents didn’t get this experience.”

Employers hesitate

While the city has gone all-in on employing as many young people as it can, private-sector companies have been slow to embrace the project, leaving Steinberg far short of his goal to include 1,000 teens. So far, only 21 local companies have agreed to hire an intern, leaving the program scrambling for jobs.

It’s a barrier the city did not expect.

“There is no question it’s been a challenge,” said Steinberg. “You hear it all the time, ‘They’re too young. What am I going to do with them?’ 

The situation grew so frustrating that in late summer, Steinberg convened a “war room” of metro chamber and business allies in a windowless space on the third floor of City Hall. Their mission was to call every contact in their phones and push them to take one of the hundred-plus kids who were still waiting for work.

Stepping in for a pep talk, Steinberg told the group, “This is not a program to me. This is a philosophy.”

Later, Steinberg described the value of his own first job as a teen recreation leader for kids at his former elementary school in Milbrae.

“I was responsible for all these little kids, and it taught me what it means to be in charge of something,” he said. But not until he was in law school and worked with a public defender’s office did he find a job “central to me,” he said. He said he wished he’d been exposed to more meaningful work at a younger age, and thinks giving that to Sacramento’s next generation is critical.

“There’s a price to be paid for the 22-year-old without a higher education or high-wage work experience,” Steinberg said. “We should not wait until they’ve already dealt with a failure or a frustration or a wall to give them that paid experience that has the potential to inspire, to motivate and that clearly gives them more skill and more opportunity.”

Despite the war room effort and Steinberg’s enthusiasm, the program was still short of placements at the end of the 10-day press, and still has 170 kids waiting for their promised employment.

In September, Sacramento City Unified School District agreed to put aside $100,000 to pay the wages for the interns for nonprofits and small businesses who take them on – effectively providing a free employee – and to help place some of the remaining teens.

A learning curve

Lora Grevious is one of the few private-sector bosses to sign up. She hired Inderkum High School junior Ashnil Ram at her law firm. She said bringing on a teen with no work history was a stretch, and getting Ash productive has taken work. Early on, when he didn’t have a task to do, Ram asked if he should just hang out and play on his phone.

“I was like, ‘No, you never have free time at work.’ ... So there have been those kind of learning moments,” she said.

Sacramento library director Rivkah Sass, who has taken six interns in all, said the young workers do take more effort. “You are not going to get an employee who is fully formed. This is not Venus on the Half Shell,” she said.

But both women said they think having the teens has been positive for their organizations.

“It’s been really worth it to see ... the kind of confidence he’s gained in just the few weeks he’s been with us,” said Grevious of Ram. “We really believe that it’s our duty as attorneys to do as much as we can for the community, maybe inspire some people who might not have been interested in the law to see it as a career they could go for.”

Sass called the program mutually beneficial for employers and kids. Their youthful energy, she said, is “literally the future.”

“I just think about how I struggled,” she said. Sass was turned down as a teen by her hometown library in the Central Valley before landing a gig as a telephone operator in Manteca through a family friend, one month before the moon landing. She still remembers “one crazy person trying to get through to Walter Cronkite” that night. But it gave her a start.

“I was desperate for work,” she said. “You’ve got to give people a chance.”

Anita Ram, Ash’s mom, works for the Department of Motor Vehicles. She has never doubted her son is headed up the economic ladder, but sees the program giving him a chance to make connections in a city he intends to stay in as an adult.

She said finding work was hard for her when she emigrated to the United States from Fiji in 1990, and for her husband, who came earlier.

“When he came in ’73 it was really hard to get your life together,” she said. “It was a struggle, and it seems like where ever you go for a job, it’s who you know. People judge your nationality. It does make a difference.”

Her first U.S. job was at Blue Diamond, where the company hired her because her husband worked there.

“At least (Ash) has a résumé where he has built it up,” Ram said. “Already he has begun to know more people.”

Ash is lean kid with big eyes, deep voice and plays clarinet in the marching band. Where he winds up, or why, are remote concerns. He’s saving his money for Sennheiser headphones, a cult favorite of audiophiles, and maybe prom tickets.

But, he said, he’s sticking with the law office because he loves being there.

“I really like working there,” he said. It “feels like it fits in like a puzzle.”

Bee reporter Philip Reese contributed to this report. Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa