For many college students, a crucial step on the path to a good job — or career — is the internship. It's a chance to gain vital experience and prove yourself to employers.
But to get that internship, you need a network, and a good resume. Both are things many students struggle with, especially those at community colleges.
Students like Kelcei Williams. She attends Northern Virginia Community College in Woodbridge, Va. When she got to campus, her only experience was at Dunkin' Donuts and Lowe's Home Improvement.
And that, says Gerald Chertavian is "not a resume that's gonna get picked out of the pile by Google or JP Morgan."
Chertavian is the founder and CEO of a program called Year Up. The organization helps low-income young adults, like Williams, get from that thin resume to a good job.
"We have millions of young people who are struggling to connect to the economy, that are struggling to find opportunity," he says.
Nearly three decades ago, Chertavian says, he wrote his graduate school admissions essay about an idea to bring more job opportunities to underserved youth. But it wasn't until years later, after building and then selling a successful technology company, that he turned that idea into reality.
Today, about 4,500 students are part of the Year Up program across the country.
Here's how it works: Year Up partners with community colleges for a 12-month program. Students spend the first six months taking classes. Some of those courses are in "skill-development" — subject based on the area's demand.
For example, cybersecurity or data analytics. Other classes teach professional skills like email etiquette, resume building and dressing for success.
Then, for the last six months, students do an internship for credit, with companies like American Express, United Airlines, LinkedIn and Bank of America. Along the way, Year Up provides social and emotional support.
"We don't value the acquisition of professional skills that, actually, you need to get a good job today," says Chertavian. "If you didn't learn this from mom or dad, or have the good fortune of having role models close to hand, you may be graduating high school with very little knowledge of career readiness."
Last year, when Kelcei Williams was working a shift at Lowe's, a customer mentioned the Year Up program, and suggested she apply.
"I didn't think I was going to step out of retail for a long time," Williams says. But now, she's loving school — "I got the first 4.0 in my life!" — and she's reframing her goals. She wants to be a software engineer.
Williams says Year Up helped her realize that her time spent serving coffee and helping customers actually gave her a bunch of transferable skills: She's a team leader. She learns fast. And she can solve problems on the spot.
She's especially appreciated the emphasis on what her Year Up leaders call: "Show up. Show out." In other words, be prepared in your demeanor and your dress, since you never know when a professional opportunity may emerge. Even when students have classes on campus, they're expected to wear professional clothing: blazers, ties, white shirts.
Williams says walking through campus in her blazer makes her feel important. Confidence was always something she's struggled with, especially after high school.
Now, she's more sure of herself and where she wants to go with her life.
Her family has noticed the change after just six months — especially her mom. "I hear her talking on the phone about it," says Williams, "and that makes me so grateful that I'm not the daughter that just sits at home anymore."
Year Up says its graduates aren't sitting at home either. Students who complete the program earn an average starting wage of $19 an hour, which is about $38,000 per year.
Last year, a federally-funded study found big wage gains for participants. For the eight locations studied, 89 percent of graduates were employed full-time four months after graduation, and 88 percent were in an occupation relevant to their Year Up training.
"You've got to change the perception that the four-year degree is a myopic tool to weed out people," says Chertavian. "Our students shouldn't be the miracle or the exception."
"If this little nonprofit can do it," he says, "We actually can do it as a country."
For her last six months in Year Up, Kelcei Williams is interning at Capital One in Richmond, where she's working on hardware and software repairs. She says she's a little nervous, but up for the challenge: She's got six months to convince her bosses they can't live without her.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
For many students, an internship is a crucial step on the path to a career. It's a chance to gain experience, improve their skills to prospective employers. But to get that internship, students first need a network and a resume. Many of them struggle with that part, especially if they come from community colleges. NPR's Elissa Nadworny reports on an organization that stepped in to help.
ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: For a lot of two-year college students, those resumes can look pretty thin. Maybe they list their high school diploma or GED, but work experience? They're in school, probably working part-time. And that often means fast-food, retail or security.
GERALD CHERTAVIAN: That's not a resume that's going to get picked out of the pile by Google or JP Morgan.
NADWORNY: That's Gerald Chertavian, the founder and CEO of a program called Year Up. In the '90s, he built and sold a successful tech company. Now he's made it his mission to help low-income young adults, many in community college, get from that thin resume to the job at Google.
CHERTAVIAN: We have millions of young people who are struggling to connect to the economy, that are struggling to find opportunity.
NADWORNY: Today, for about 4,500 young people around the country, Year Up is working to open up that opportunity. Here's how it works. Year Up partners with community colleges where students spend six months taking classes. Some are in skill development based on the area's demands - so cybersecurity in Virginia or data analytics in California.
Other classes teach professional skills, like email etiquette, resume-building, dressing for the office. Then, the last six months, students do an internship for credit with companies like American Express, United, LinkedIn and Bank of America. Along the way Year Up provides social and emotional support.
CHERTAVIAN: We don't value the acquisition of professional skills that actually you need to get a good job today.
NADWORNY: Chertavian says if you don't learn them from mom or dad, you're kind of out of luck since these skills aren't usually in community college classes.
KELCEI WILLIAMS: My name is Kelcei Williams.
NADWORNY: Williams is a 23-year-old from Virginia. When she started Year Up last year, she was a bit nervous about something on the syllabus called the elevator pitch.
WILLIAMS: I thought they were going to expect us to stand in the elevator and deliver something. And I was just like, oh, this is weird.
NADWORNY: Turns out it's a brief summary of who you are and what you want to accomplish. That assignment was harder than Williams thought it would be. She'd only had work experience at Dunkin' Donuts and Lowe's Home Improvement Center. She never really thought about a career.
WILLIAMS: I didn't think I was going to step out of retail for a long time.
NADWORNY: A customer at Lowe's actually told her about the program, and when she enrolled in Year Up at Northern Virginia Community College, she took classes in information technology. That helped her reframe her goals. Now she's aiming at software engineering. Williams says Year Up helped her realize that her time spent serving coffee and helping customers find the right drill actually gave her a bunch of transferable skills.
WILLIAMS: Team leadership, quick learner, being able to problem-solve on the spot with critical thinking.
NADWORNY: Another big push in Year Up - show up, show out, which basically means dressing up. Even when students have classes on campus, they're expected to wear things like blazers, ties and white shirts. Williams says walking through campus in her blazer, it makes her feel important.
WILLIAMS: People look at us, and they stare at us. And they're just like, who are they? What is this?
NADWORNY: She says it's helped her stand up straight and own who she is and where she's going. Confidence, it's always been something she's struggled with.
WILLIAMS: Especially after high school, not knowing what path I wanted to be on, what I wanted to do.
NADWORNY: She says her family has noticed a change in just six months, especially her mom.
WILLIAMS: I hear her talking on the phone about it. You know, that makes me so grateful that I'm just not the daughter who sits at home anymore.
NADWORNY: This month, Williams starts her internship at Capital One, working on hardware and software repairs. She says she's a little nervous but up for the challenge. She's got six months to convince her bosses they can't live without her. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE SHINS' "THE FEAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.