Omaha program looks to training a new generation of Nebraska employees

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August 2, 2012 - 7:00pm

It's a warm summer morning in Omaha. A team of teenagers adorned in green T-shirts is cleaning up tree and shrub debris south of 36th and F streets. Christopher Butler is one of those teens. He sweeps the sidewalk, saying they've been all over the city this summer.

"Every park, every lake, we've probably been to; we've cut trees, we clean up, we pick up trash, just make Omaha look a lot more beautiful," he said. "When I go out to places like Cunningham Lake and see trash all over, it makes me not want to be there, but after we come through and clean up a bunch of stuff, it makes for a lot more welcoming environment."

Photo by Perry Stoner, NET News

Christopher Butler (center) sweeps up debris along 36th Street in south Omaha as part of SummerWorks youth job training.

Butler is one of 150 Omaha youth taking part in SummerWorks, a program designed to give teenagers job experience and training to make them more employable in the future. It's a program funded by foundations and employers who see a need for youth to gain experience, and to develop future employees that businesses will need. It's first-time employment for every one of the teens.

While Nebraska's unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation, it's still not always easy for young people to find a job, especially a first job. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, Omaha's overall unemployment rate is just under 9 percent, but for the 16- to 19-year-old bracket, it's more than 24 percent.

Mondays through Thursdays, the SummerWorks teams work at various public properties and non-profit organizations. They clean city parks, paint benches and picnic tables, even paint lines in parking lots in the heat of the summer. On Fridays, though, it's something different: a chance to hear from professionals about what it takes to succeed. Butler said they've been learning about a wide range of things: "A lot of character skills, a lot of business skills, how to take care of my money, how to take care of the work environment, how to act in a work environment - just a lot more than I expected just from getting minimum wage."

SummerWorks is administered by the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Student - Community Leadership and Service program. Program Director Kathe Oleson Lyons said the "field trip Fridays" portion of the program includes trips to college campuses in the area so the teens can start thinking about college needs, as well.

"They'll visit those campuses, they'll talk with people about financial aid, they'll talk about scholarships, they'll talk about business etiquette, learn how to interview, learn how to be successful in developing leadership skills," she said.

Oleson Lyons said one significant employment obstacle for many youth is transportation. SummerWorks begins each day at a central location, then buses the kids to their work place for the day. Beyond just working, the idea is to help them learn more about Omaha, too.

"It's a nine-week program. We expect by the end of the summer for them to have a much better understanding about what our community offers them, as well as what they can do in service to the community," she said. "And in the world of work, they'll have a better understanding of certain likes and dislikes they'll have in certain jobs they perform."

Photo by Perry Stoner, NET News

Shylia Riley (center) clears weeds from the sunflower patch at Lauritzen Gardens in Omaha.

Kneeling in a patch of sunflowers at Lauritzen Gardens, picking weeds, Darrion Parks joked about his future.

"I'm going to be a gardener now," he said. "I will protect the world from weeds!"

Learning dislikes is part of the experience, too. Pulling weeds is not what Parks wants to do in the future, but SummerWorks showed the Omaha Central senior what a real job is like.

"They teach us responsibility, like we have to get to our job on time and clock in and clock out, listen to criticism if it's negative or positive, just be a team leader," he said.

Shylia Riley gained a lot of painting experience. She's learned she doesn't like it, but said it still could come in handy.

"When it comes to painting my house, I might be very good at that," she said. Riley will be a junior at Omaha Central. She said SummerWorks filled a void.

"It was really frustrating trying to find a job," she said. "At 15, nobody really hires you, and you are limited (in terms of) hours," she said. "SummerWorks is really good because you work every day, have guaranteed hours, so it was pretty nice."

Seventeen-year-old Marlon Harrison found that working alongside peers for the summer helped him grow in a personal way.

"I like it because it got me out of my shell," he said. "I was in a bubble, didn't want to talk to anybody, but now I got out of my bubble and got to know more people and got to see ... parts of Omaha I never saw before."

Willie Barney said good things happen when young people have a chance to show what they can do. Barney is president of the Empowerment Network in Omaha, whose mission includes addressing economic and education gaps in the city. He said working every day provides something more than just income.

"You give them an opportunity to get a strong education - relevant, challenging education, interactive educational experience, (and) create positive activities for them to be involved in," he explained. "If they're busy doing positive things, they have a lot less time to even think about getting involved in something negative."

With the business sector involved in SummerWorks, it fits the approach Barney is using to address employment opportunities for young Omahans.

"It's multi-prong," he said. "We got to have all of the partners in the room. And just like we have a violence prevention coalition, we have an employment and entrepreneurship coalition that we're bringing together.

"We're focused initially just on summer jobs, but now we're trying to expand that and work with the business community and others that actually can help create job opportunities."

Photo by Perry Stoner, NET News

Alyssa Daigre puts debris on a brush pile while helping clean up an overgrown area along Omaha's 36th Street.

Back on 36th Street, the team in green continues clearing debris from a public area with overgrown trees. One of the team leaders gives the group instructions: "That stuff needs to go to the big pile please ... you got it, girl, thank you!"

Alyssa Daigre walks back and forth with handfuls of debris. The Omaha North senior said she likes what she's learned over the summer.

"Well, we've really just been working outside - mulching, picking up trees, trying to clean up parks, making them look better for the community," she said. "And really, we've been learning about skills you would learn in a workplace: how to be professional, how to handle situations, how to manage your money, how to handle a credit card."

Daigre and the other teens said SummerWorks, works for them: They hope it's a first job that will open the door to the next one.

"This is really a good way to have a first job, if you are looking for some experience (to) add on to your resume," Daigre said.

Director Oleson Lyons said the need in Omaha continues: more than 500 youth applied for the 150 jobs SummerWorks offered this summer.



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