Genesys Works: Discovering the crucial first steps on a career path

Top: Executive director Jeff Tollefson talks about Genesys Works' goals during their summer program. Bottom: Summer students learn new computer skills for upcoming internships.
Photo By: John Doman
For more information about Genesys Works, call (651) 789-0088 or visit genesysworks.org.

Bright red accent walls are not the only thing that gives a lively feel to the Genesys Works office in St. Paul.

Upbeat staff conversations linger from an adjacent meeting room as visitors are acknowledged through a set of giant glass doors. The voice of a teacher explaining how to use Microsoft Excel echoes through the hall. The clicking of a mouse escapes from an open office belonging to executive director Jeff Tollefson.

Technology is at the center of Genesys Works, a program that serves Twin Cities high school students—primarily from minority backgrounds and families with a history of financial troubles—who need an extra push to succeed in the job market.

This is done by placing seniors who graduate from the Genesys summer program into professional paid internships throughout the school year. Students go to school in the morning, then leave for their job at a major company in the Twin Cities during the afternoon.

With the support of 47 companies, Genesys Works placed 224 students at school year internship sites during its recent football-style “Draft Day Celebration,” Tollefson said.

“When we really recruit, we’re looking for principals, guidance counselors and STEM teachers to tell us who are the students—who if not but for a little help—might really choose a lesser path In their life,” he said.

Along with the Twin Cities, the program is located in Houston, Chicago and the Bay Area—areas with large economic and education-based achievement gaps. A majority of the jobs at Genesys are IT related—for instance, technical support and computer software—but Tollefson stressed that students don’t have to only want IT jobs in the future to participate.

“Even the basic computer skills that students learn during their training will serve them well as they go off to college and need to troubleshoot their own devices,” he said. “We’re not requiring that everybody wants to have an information technology career, but just be open to learning and appreciating the important role that technology plays in all businesses.”

Kaitlyn Jones, a senior at Como Park High School, said she directly benefits from Genesys’ model by being pushed to set herself apart from fellow peers. In August, she started an internship at 3M.

“I know, personally, I look at things as a competition. So I look at the job market and college like that—to get a scholarship, to know that the best get into school,” Jones said. “While my friends are at home sleeping (in summer), I’m getting way ahead. I’m gonna win in the race of life.”

Chengyeng Lee, a senior at Washington Technology Magnet School, also sets himself apart by being more motivated than his family members. His internship at Deluxe Corporation is starting him on the right path.

“I got two older brothers that finished high school three years ago. They’re not even doing much,” Lee said. “One just entered college in the fall, the other one, he’s staying home and texting all day. We always give him lectures to go find a job. I want to stand out.”

An eight-week summer camp is required before students can work as paid interns during the school year. It offers students practical technology skills like Microsoft Excel, plus workplace advice on how to dress and act professionally at work.

It’s designed to be a mutually beneficial process, Tollefson said. Clients receive quality work from high school students who want to make their businesses better. Likewise, students learn to master professional skills they wouldn’t otherwise receive in a classroom.

“Our clients that pay us for services expect a certain level of quality, so we need to make sure that students are dependable, reliable, motivated and come willing to learn each and every day. So it’s not for everybody,” Tollefson said.

Nonprofit programs are generally based around fundraising, but that’s also an interesting wrinkle for Genesys. The program has an “earned income” model, which covers most operational costs.

Being self sufficient, Tollefson said, allows the program to act more like a business. With more funds to provide directly to students, there can be more growth in professional skills.

“Clients pay us ‘X amount,’ we pay students here. There’s a little margin that covers the cost of training and so forth, so as a nonprofit we’ve been very self sufficient,” Tollefson said.

Genesys Works is showing students that it is OK to stray from a traditional classroom setting by letting students learn useful skills independently—and perhaps best of all, in a real career setting.

“We want to provide some exponential learning through experiences,” Tollefson said. “So, by taking them out of the classroom and putting them into the workplace, it really helps them begin to see why they’re going to school, why they’re going to college.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Isabelle Loisel is a senior at Edison High School. Her story on Genesys Works is part of a package by 12 high school students who participated in ThreeSixty Journalism’s residential Intermediate Camp from June 15 to June 27.

Their stories are centered on youth organizations in the metro area that are cultivating the “next generation” of leaders. Click here to read more from ThreeSixty’s summer camp series.

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