Alumna Lauren Silverstein Starts Work Preparation Program for Hartford Teens
by John Conroy
Typically, pilot programs need some time to find their footing and get things off the ground. However, for Lauren Silverstein, founder and director of the Jr. Apprentice
program in Hartford, Conn., this was not an issue. When she began the nonprofit program with the Hartford Consortium for Higher Education in June 2013, employers and local school leadership openly welcomed the project, which connects Bulkeley High School 11th graders with local employers for paid apprenticeship opportunities and career readiness programming.
The idea for Jr. Apprentice came from Silverstein, who graduated from the School of Education in 2012 as a PhD student in the Social and Comparative Analysis in Education program. Silverstein had worked with both low-income teens at urban public high schools as well as taught undergraduate and graduate students at universities. She reflects that among all her students, few knew about the variety of careers available to them or were able to make informed decisions about which careers were good fits based on their talents, interests, and market demands.
The difference, she says, is that her college students tended to know people who could connect them to various opportunities to “try out” careers through internships, informational interviews, shadowing or offering help to
review resumes and draft professional emails. Her urban public school teens did not have the same professional networks. And because teen unemployment is so low, they were having a hard time finding jobs where they could meet people, get exposure to different careers, and learn valuable job skills.
Silverstein points to research that shows the benefits of teen employment, including higher future earnings, less crime, and fewer teen pregnancies. Additionally, teens with jobs are more likely to graduate from high school and secure future employment. “However, the payoffs of working are not only in the outcomes, but also in the process, the experience itself,” Silverstein adds.
By exposing high school juniors to a vocation of interest, the program’s ultimate purpose is to:
Provide teens the opportunity to develop skills in a career path they find meaningful and financially stable,
Build social capital through mentoring relationships, and
Foster closer connections between current employers and the future workforce.
The first Jr. Apprentices started in fall 2013, when student applicants were interviewed. Silverstein, along with a lead teacher and the school’s college and career specialist, selected the students based on the “4 I’s”: imagination, independence, integrity, and initiative.
“We don’t have a GPA requirement,” says Silverstein, “the purpose is not to select only the 4.0 students, but those who have a fire in the belly and are looking for the spark to ignite it.” Once the students were selected, they met weekly in a career readiness class taught by Silverstein during their school day. The class uses the Junior Achievement Career Success curriculum and prepares students with skills to not only get a job but to succeed in it, including a focus on personal finance.
In January 2014, students interviewed with their top three apprenticeship positions and were matched with host employers in fields such as health care, digital media, marketing, education, philanthropy, and nonprofit management. After students and professional-mentors ranked their favorite candidates, program staff made a “mutually beneficial” match. The apprenticeships ran from February-April for 3-6 hours a week, and Jr. Apprentice paid the students so it was “a form of meaningful, and much-needed, employment, but at no financial burden to the professional-mentor.”
“In February, less than 33 percent of mentors reported their apprentice knew a lot about how to enter and succeed in the career path of their apprenticeship,” says Silverstein. “By the end of the apprenticeship, more than 80 percent of students were observed to have a great deal of knowledge about the career, and 100 percent said they felt ‘lucky’ to have met their mentor and were very likely to stay in touch.” All students graduated from the program with a professional resume, interviewing skills, work experience, a career mentor, and earnings.
Jr. Apprentice now involves over 150 volunteers and supporters, along with a waitlist of local professionals interested in hosting an apprentice and facilitating a workshop. Student applications in the second year tripled the number of spots available. The organization exceeded the fundraising needed for its annual budget by 22 percent, allowing it to meet all first year expenses and start the second year this fall on solid ground.
Silverstein says, “I am grateful for all the mentors I have had, including many at Pitt, who took chances on me and gave me opportunities that challenged me, both personally and professionally. My hope is that Jr. Apprentice can do the same for Hartford teens.”