By Maja Beckstrom, Pioneer Press
Keyana Johnson answers phones and resolves password issues Wednesday in the IT department at Travelers in St. Paul through an internship program run by Genesys Works. (Pioneer Press: Scott Takushi)
When employees at Travelers can’t log into their computer and call the company help desk, they might get advice from a high school student.
Keyana Johnson is one of three high school seniors working at the insurance giant in downtown St. Paul through a nonprofit called Genesys Works, which places low-income students in entry-level information technology jobs at large companies.
The goal is nothing less than to change the trajectory of students’ lives — through job training, an introduction to a professional workplace and help enrolling in college.
“I was always interested in technology, and cellphones were a big thing for me,” said Johnson, 17, a senior at Washington Technology Magnet School in St. Paul and one of 900 students who applied. “But I didn’t know anything other than how you send a text message and basic things like that.”
Johnson was attracted by the experience — and the money. Participants attend classes at school in the morning and show up at their internships in the afternoon. They are paid $9.50 to $10 an hour, working 20 hours a week. Companies pay Genesys $20 per hour, which covers about 80 percent of the organization’s budget.
The organization was founded in Houston, Texas, and runs four sites around the country, including one in the Twin Cities that started in 2008. This fall, 232 students, more than 90 percent students of color, were placed at corporations including Target, Medtronic, Ecolab, Deluxe and 3M.
Companies see it as a way to diversify the workforce and create a pipeline of future tech workers. Genesys sees what they do as a way to close the opportunity gap.
“These are students who often don’t have support at home, people saying ‘here’s what you need to do to start preparing to get into college’ or ‘here’s how you find a meaningful part-time job,’â ” said Karen Marben, who took over this summer as the Twin Cities program’s executive director. “We really see a transformation in these students over the year.”
Genesys works with more than 30 schools in the Twin Cities, including seven public high schools in St. Paul. Like the other interns, Johnson was on track to graduate in 2016 when she applied to the program. Genesys targets the “quiet middle” — average students who might not think of college.
THE PROFESSIONAL HANDSHAKE
Genesys also runs a full-day unpaid summer training program, where students punch time cards and adhere to a dress code to get used to expectations in the workplace. They learn how to install printers, use a spreadsheet and other topics covered in an entry-level college technology course.
Johnson said the curriculum was “way harder” than school, but she stuck with it. She also learned to write professional emails with a signature attachment, braved public speaking and practiced handshakes.
“A professional handshake is not too firm or not too weak,” she said. “If your confidence improves, you can give a proper handshake. My handshake really improved.”
Such things might sound like common sense but are insider tips for young people who might not know anyone who works in a professional setting. Take clothing:
“You have to think about how you present yourself,” said Johnson. “When you go to an interview, you’re not supposed to wear leggings. That’s one thing I never knew.”
Johnson started her internship at the end of August while facing problems at home. Her family lost their apartment at the end of the school year and were homeless over the summer. In September, they moved from a friend’s house to stay with her grandmother in St. Paul, and their belongings were stolen from their car, including the professional clothes Johnson had purchased at thrift stores.
She called her program coordinator at Genesys at 7 a.m. for advice on how to tell her boss she’d be late for work and ended up bursting into tears. Her program director brought her to another nonprofit that provides free professional clothing. The interaction is an example of what Marben calls the “high touch” aspect of the program that’s crucial to its success.
“I consider her a friend,” Johnson said of her Genesys mentor.
‘THAT FOOT IN THE DOOR’
Johnson showed up for work on a recent weekday looking sharp in a knee-length black skirt and wearing a lanyard printed with the Travelers red umbrella logo and dangling a company ID. Interns do the same work of any entry-level employee. They might give out laptops, clean up databases or test software.
Johnson works on the help desk’s call center. She started with the relatively easy task of resetting passwords and will progress through the year to more complicated problems.
“It’s really interesting,” she said. “These are real people, calling in with real problems. Sometimes you have to use your brain to figure out what the issue may be. Today, I had to tell someone to go under their computer to see if their Ethernet was plugged into their laptop. They weren’t certain about what the Ethernet was. So I had to look at the back of my docking station. And I said, ‘it’s a white cord. It flashes yellow and green,’ and they were like, ‘OK, I get it.’ ”
Johnson’s supervisor, Travelers IT manager Joe Kotaska, said she’s “doing really well.”
“These students are super excited to be part of the program,” he said. “It’s contagious. So when someone comes in with a lot of energy, my team feels that, and it’s motivating.”
Mike McCollor, principal at Washington Technology Magnet, where about 20 students this year are Genesys interns, says it’s “an incredible program” and dovetails with a growing interest among educators in exposing students to careers during high school.
“It’s an opportunity for these kids to have a professional job rather than flipping burgers at McDonalds or working at Dairy Queen,” he added. “They’re getting an experience that a lot of kids don’t get until after they finish their undergraduate degree, and they’re getting it while they’re a senior in high school. For first-generation college kids, it gives them that foot in the door. And it can help redefine what they want to study.”
LOWER DROPOUT RATE SOUGHT
Neither of Johnson’s parents have college degrees. Her mother works as a personal care attendant for people with disabilities, and her father cleans medical instruments at a hospital. “But my mother has always been like, ‘you’ve got to go to college,’ ” said Johnson.
About a third of Genesys interns who enroll in college study information technology. Johnson doesn’t know what she will study but wants to apply to college somewhere. “Now I feel like I know the steps to maybe do that.”
Over the past two years, Genesys has put more emphasis not only on helping students apply for college but also supporting them during the first two years.
In 2012, 63 percent of the interns enrolled in two- or four-year colleges. This fall, 96 percent enrolled. Students get help during the summer writing application essays, are prodded to apply for financial aid even get text messages during the summer after high school to remind them to sign up for college housing and attend orientation. About 20 percent of students drop out of college, a number Genesys hopes to lower.
“We want to continue building out this college support,” said program director Beth Moncrief.
Genesys has not tracked employment, though that is something the program also wants to do. Moncrief likes to tell the story of an intern from Humboldt High School in St. Paul who had an internship at Ecolab and got his degree in business management at Hamline University.
“Now he works on the IT security team at Ecolab,” she said.