Houston Public Media: Nonprofit Replaces Backpacks with Briefcases

May 16, 2017

Press Release

Listen to the story here.


Getting a job as a teenager can mean flipping burgers or clerking at a store at the mall. But a new program at one high school in North-East Houston aims at placing teens in far more challenging jobs. At C.E. King High School three-fourths of the students are identified as economically disadvantaged and qualify for free and reduced lunch. That is why Principal Demetrius McCall makes an effort to give his students the best opportunities possible.

“We really try to offer our students a well-rounded education, so when they leave these walls that they don’t feel just because this is my circumstance now, this is going to be my circumstance forever,” says McCall. The school provides a career prep course led by Darla Simpson.
“As the coordinator, I oversee our students that work and go to school,” says Simpson. “They take a career preparation class along with going to work as well.”

Kevin Leija is a student in Simpson’s class. His family moved to Houston 10 years ago from Mexico and he came knowing no English.
At the beginning of his high school career he wasn’t motivated. “Sometimes I would not go to class and I had to pay for the consequences,” says Kevin. Things changed when he got an internship through a program called Genesys Works. It’s a non-profit organization that allows underprivileged high schoolers to experience career opportunities they may not have thought was possible. Simpson remembers when Kevin went from a “D student” to a “B student”.

“Kevin had the mentality of ‘ugh, it’s good enough,” says Kevin. “He did just enough to get by. Since he’s been doing Genesys Works he is on top of everything about class.” The Genesys Works program started in Houston and provides students with training during the summer. Since 2002 they’ve expanded to four other locations across the U.S. It places them in a one-year internship with hands on experience where they receive above minimum wage.

Jeff Tollefson is with Gensey Works. “Because our internships are a year long it’s intensive, so students are really expected to perform real work or real value to real companies,” says Tollefson. The program partners with a wide range of companies like GE, Conoco Philips, and AT&T.
That’s where Kevin interns. He showed me his cubicle where he has stacks of papers and highlighted maps everywhere.
He is involved in large projects that help AT&T decide where to lay cable in neighborhoods. “All of these are drawings, designated drawings I needed to do,” says Kevin. “And over here, this is a big ol’ number right here. 1,277, that’s how many maps we did over a span period of two or three months, so it was a big project.”

Tollefson says they strategically prepare students for businesses like these to fill a void in the job market. “There is a recognized skills gap in terms of having enough tech savvy talent that’s homegrown that can really serve the business needs of companies not just for this year but for decades to come,” says Tollefson.

Genesys Works is economically self-sufficient. Companies pay to have skilled interns and fifty percent goes to the students in forms of wages, and the rest funds the program. “In many ways we operate like a for-profit staffing company,” says Tollefson. “We just happen to use low-income urban high school students as the trained resource.” Kevin says Genesy Works showed him a future that he didn’t know was possible.
“I feel ready that I could just flat out of high school go and get a job and work in an office,” says Kevin. On average, students five years out of the program are now making close to $45,000 a year.

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