Chattanooga Students Stepping Up

Aug. 5, 2016

Alexis Jackson, who worked as a financial services representative at SmartBank.

High school internship program improves prospects for kids and the community

A firm handshake, a smile and eye contact are basics for greeting people in a business setting. That may be second nature for many adults, but they had to learn it somewhere.

Now a new summer internship program called STEP-UP Chattanooga is helping Hamilton County teenagers living in low-income households learn those skills and more. Participating students get lessons on business fundamentals before interviewing for and starting paid summer jobs with local companies.

Destiny O’Dell was one of several students who worked in visitors services at the Tennessee Aquarium.

“I was kind of nervous about the interview, but we did workshops to help us prepare and create a resume,” she said.

Following a proven model

STEP-UP was implemented by the Public Education Foundation (PEF), and follows the model of the highly successful STEP-UP program in Minneapolis.

In 12 years, 22,000 teens have gone through the program in Minneapolis, according to that city’s former Mayor R.T. Rybak, who helped Chattanooga leaders get their program started.

LaCara Bell, one of several students who worked in visitors services at the Tennessee Aquarium.

LaCara Bell, one of several students who worked in visitors services at the Tennessee Aquarium.

STEP-UP is designed to teach public school juniors and seniors how to successfully work in a business setting and then place them in summer internships with local businesses, where they will receive on-the-job training and establish valuable professional relationships.

“I really have enjoyed the job,” says Alexis Jackson, who worked as a financial services representative at SmartBank.

“The clients are friendly and I love my co-workers.”

Addressing an economic need for a growing city

PEF Vice President Stacy Lightfoot leads the STEP-UP Chattanooga program and says it can be an important piece in solving a problem facing Chattanooga – not enough qualified workers to fill available jobs.

Rybak says that problem can get worse as a “silver tsunami” of retirements by older workers increases in the coming years.

How STEP-UP Chattanooga works

PEF takes interested students through an application and preparation process before they join a company’s workplace. Here’s what it looks like:

  • Applicants complete a STEP-UP online application
  • A STEP-UP Chattanooga team member contacts applicants to go over the required steps to complete work readiness training and mock interviews
  • Interns participate in work-readiness training
  • Interns are matched with jobs based on their interests and skills and the needs of the employer
  • Interns are interviewed and hired by employers
  • Interns work at their summer jobs from mid-June to mid-August

Calvin Anderson, a senior vice president for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, says STEP-UP Chattanooga is a positive move for the future of the community overall and students in particular.

“STEP-UP Chattanooga allows us to dramatically raise the quality of our workforce, while significantly improving opportunities for our young people,” Anderson says.

“Best of all, we know it works.”