This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
When Greg Damas was 14 and a freshman in high school, he didn’t have a clue about what career he might pursue, nor did he have much confidence in his own abilities.
“The closest thing I had to a job was watering plants at my church,” he said.
Purely by chance, someone at his high school told him about WorkReady Philadelphia, and he got his first summer job as an intern in the human resources department at Comcast. “I was surrounded by young professionals moving and grooving,” he told a gathering Monday at Bank of America headquarters in Center City that launched the program for this year.
Damas got his first paycheck, learned about managing his own finances, and eventually earned “the most beautiful piece of plastic I ever saw, a debit card.”
The WorkReady program, a collaboration between public and corporate partners, places young people in paid internships around the city. The program will expand with an additional $1 million from the city government to employ more than 8,000 young people this summer between ages 12 and 24.
Speakers at the event, which included Mayor Kenney as well as business leaders, all stressed in one way or another that investing in young people is investing in the city’s future.
“They will be exposed to many career paths, learn valuable employment skills and develop networks that may last a lifetime,” Kenney said.
There was a pall over the event due to a shooting that happened the night before at a graduation party in Southwest Philadelphia. It resulted in one death and five injuries, four of them teens.
“Our hearts are heavy from the news last night,” said Department of Human Services Commissioner Cynthia Figueroa, whose agency manages WorkReady for the city. She said that programs that keep young people occupied and employed form a “roadmap for a safer community.”
Jim Dever, president of Bank of America, addresses the gathering at the 2019 WorkReady summer jobs launch. (Photo: Dale Mezzacappa)
Figueroa also said that this year, the city will make an effort to broaden the reach of the program to include young people who have gone through the juvenile justice system and those who have been in foster care.
“We are making a concerted effort that the most vulnerable youth have access to more opportunities. We need to bring equity,” to the effort, Figueroa said.
Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children & Youth said that “until we open up that door to every kid in the city, we will suffer the consequences of this weekend. We will spend more money on child welfare and juvenile justice than we do celebrating the success of our kids.”
Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend is president and CEO of the Philadelphia Youth Network, the nonprofit that coordinates the WorkReady program. “If we don’t invest in our future, we will regret it later,” she said.
Sharmain Matlock-Turner, president and CEO of the Urban Affairs Coalition, said more contributions are welcome. “Fifteen thousand students will apply, and we don’t want to say no to every other kid,” she said. “We want to say yes to every kid.”
With this year’s $1 million boost, the city contribution is $7.8 million. Philadelphia Works, the city’s workforce development board, kicks in $5.3 million, and the business community provides $1.1 million.
“All of our young people, no matter what part of the city they are from, deserve the opportunity to connect with potential employers, develop professional skills that will help them excel in their future careers,” said Kenney. “It will help them make some money this summer and keep them out of harm’s way, hopefully.”
About 1,300 of the interns work with Parks and Recreation, and 100 more in other departments “across the entire city government,” the mayor said.
Others will be placed with nonprofits and businesses. Bank of America, the host of the event, is supporting 80 summer jobs this year, both by hosting interns and through its investment.
Pat Clancy, the president and CEO of Philadelphia Works, noted that due to the early end of the school year, people had to scramble so that the jobs could start now rather than in July. “This year we added funds to give students the opportunity to work early,” he said. “Some are starting today.”
The exposure to different career opportunities opened up the world for Damas, now 20 and a rising junior at Villanova University majoring in finance. “I was exposed to different career opportunities,” Damas said of his WorkReady experience. “Sometimes the biggest obstacles to a journey to prosperity is ourselves.”
In addition to his summer employment, Damas also participated in Bank of America’s Student Leaders program.
“Taking part in these two programs taught me that I needed to stop selling myself short,” Damas said.