Getting technical: Teens sharpen skills at Genesys Works' summer training program

Ninety-six percent of Genesys Works’ interns are students of color, and executive director Jeff Tollefson thinks that the program is succeeding at bridging the significant achievement gap.
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“It used to be harder because of the misconceptions about what teens are capable of and what a high school internship means, but after seeing the success of our first class, it has been much easier."

Summer brings sunny days, warm weather and—for most high school students—a break from the hard work that’s demanded during an academic year.

However, more than 200 Minnesota students didn’t sit idly on the beach or blow through their entire Netflix queue to pass the time this summer. Instead, they used the school-free months to learn what it takes to be a successful professional through an intense training program.

Originally founded 11 years ago in Houston, Genesys Works expanded to the Twin Cities in 2008. Starting with just 11 students, it now serves more than 200 students each year. The goal of the program is to “prepare students for college and career success,” said executive director Jeff Tollefson.

After a selection process, which includes an application and an interview, upcoming seniors are hired to engage in an eight-week training workshop throughout the summer. The intent is to teach them professional and technical skills required to succeed in the corporate world — from dealing with customers in a businesslike manner to shaking hands properly to the specifics of upgrading hardware.

Genesys offers two technical tracks: Information Technology (IT) and business operations. Students select their preference when they apply.

Habiib Hassan, 17, a senior at Edina High School, underwent IT training over the summer.

“I learned so many skills related to IT and computers, but I also learned a lot of professional skills, like how to deal with people professionally,” Hassan said. He also attests to the intensity of the training.

“It’s pretty rigorous because of all the tests and it requires a lot of hard work. If you’re not interested in IT and working hard, then you won’t like the program,” Hassan said.

The training is divided into several units, and after each unit, they are tested on the material covered. After they have successfully completed the courses and passed the finals, the students are “drafted” by one of 40 companies and corporations for work during the school year. Some are Fortune 500 companies, including 3M, Medtronic, Target and Bremer Financial.

Hassan will be working at Minneapolis-based Cargill this year as a software analyst. This is Cargill’s inaugural year with Genesys. Tollefson said it used to be difficult to convince companies about the value of teen internships, but now it’s becoming easier.

“It used to be harder because of the misconceptions about what teens are capable of and what a high school internship means, but after seeing the success of our first class, it has been much easier,” he said.

Students undertake a variety of jobs, from providing help desk support to performing hardware upgrades and PC trouble-shooting. They must dedicate either their mornings or afternoons, five days a week, to working at the company, which means they must miss some school. However, students receive three credits for their employment.

In addition, they earn around $8 to 10 an hour, and since interns accumulate an average of 1,000 hours, students can earn upwards of $9,000 in their senior year. According to Tollefson, the cash and experience is invaluable to students, especially ones from low-income families.

“We target anyone that’s really motivated since this is a huge commitment of time, anyone willing to put the effort in to be successful at a professional and technical level. But we especially target students who come from financially challenged families,” he said.

Ninety-six percent of Genesys Works’ interns are students of color, and Tollefson thinks that the program is succeeding at bridging the significant achievement gap.

While Tollefson hopes to grow and expand to ensure more students are on track for successful college and professional careers, the success of Genesys Works has been staggering. Their website is loaded with success stories of students who are now taking advantage of excellent career opportunities post-college.

Since the first summer training five years ago, 97 percent of Genesys students have gone to college, and more than 80 percent have either graduated or are still in college.

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