Many career possibilities might as well not exist in many neighborhoods in downtown Trenton. David Anderson, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Trenton, says “If you walk around Trenton, there is not a large diversity of office buildings or businesses where most kids live. Most grow up and live within a 10-block radius, where they see laundromats, local bodegas, bars, and liquor stores, and that’s about it.”
In poor neighborhoods, rather than being exposed to regular people who work in real jobs, children are familiar only with cultural icons and superstars. “One of the things we hear from a lot of kids is that they don’t feel that they have a chance,” Anderson says. “Part of that is knowing that if the only thing they are going for is to be a movie star, a sports professional, or a rap star, your chances are small.”
The statistics tell an even grimmer story. Among the parents of current Trenton public school students, 38 percent did not graduate from high school. Only 9 percent have a degree from a four-year college. This is why the Boys and Girls Clubs have created Career Launch, which focuses on two distinct populations. For ninth grade and under, it offers career exploration and discovery. For 10th to 12th grades, it offers career exploration plus workplace readiness and career planning. The clubs meet after school and serve about 1,200 children and teenagers.
The first step in Career Launch is to let children know what opportunities are available to them. “A lot of kids don’t have a vision or a dream, and if they do have one, it is very narrowly focused to what they are exposed to via TV or through sports, media, or their own environment,” says Anderson.
Once children have a more realistic understanding of future job possibilities, they may begin to understand the role education plays in career success. “We try to let the kids understand why schools are important — that in order to succeed in most careers, they have to first graduate from high school, which over 50 percent of our kids probably won’t do. And then they need to go to college or technical school,” says Anderson.
The Boys and Girls Club of Trenton and Mercer County will hold spring career fairs in area schools for middle and high school students, beginning on Friday, March 18 at 6 p.m. at the club’s headquarters on Centre Street. It will host several career fairs through mid-April and companies are invited to take part. A special fair will be held exclusively for high school students on Thursday, April 7, at 6 p.m. at the Boys and Girls Club. Anderson says that area corporations, small businesses, and professionals can participate in these fairs and other programs that help widen the aspirations of Trenton children and give them experiences that will help them succeed in life. For more information visit www.bgctrenton.org or call 609-392-3191.
Be a role model. “A career fair is a great entry point and it is not a big commitment — two hours on one day and not a lot of prep,” says Anderson. “Most people are excited to talk about their jobs and what they do.”
He invites volunteers to share something they are doing at work and how it connects to the real world outside. “One of the big reasons people drop out of high school is that they can’t connect the purpose of school to careers,” says Anderson. So engineers might talk about a product they have worked on as well as what skills they acquired in school helped them in this task.
The club prepares volunteers well for these events. “When we recruit a professional in a business, we give them a fact sheet on the format and the types of things they can bring, show, or do that can make the fair successful,” says Anderson. This includes giving them samples of questions the students have been coached to ask: What is your title? What was your training? What education was required for your job? What do you like to do most? What don’t you like about your job? What do you spend most of the day doing? Often students will also ask how much money the visitor makes, and the factsheet offers possible responses — to offer industry averages; mention the starting salary; or, if comfortable, tell them your current salary.
Fred Egenolf, director of community affairs at Bristol-Myers Squibb, oversees community outreach and philanthropy. BMS has supported the Boys and Girls Club of Trenton for a number of years, including the participation of individual employees in a series of career fairs last spring and this coming spring. “We adopted four schools for the career program,” says Egenolf. “We sent about four dozen folks into the schools, 10 to 12 to each.”
Last spring BMS employees participated in career fairs at four Trenton-area elementary schools: Columbus, Gregory and Mott elementary schools, and Village Charter School. Students explored roles in pharmaceutical research and development, laboratory services, engineering and technical operations, supply chain management, automation, marketing, sales training, communications (including graphic design and video production), human resources, customer service, and accounting, among others.
“We did this so that the children could see the types of careers that were possible and talk with people who do those careers to talk about what is necessary,” says Egenolf. Egenolf has been at Bristol-Myers Squibb for 13 years. Previously he was assistant managing editor at the “Princeton Packet,” in charge of its Princeton Business Journal.
Invite students to visit corporate sites on field trips. Sometimes it is important for kids to see where someone works, firsthand. They will see the possibilities in the working environment and often are totally amazed, says Anderson.
They see, for example, that everybody has computers on their desks, and perhaps get the message that if they don’t learn how to use the computer well, they’re not going to be successful. They also notice how people dress for a job.
Before the visit, the people from different departments who will present to the students will receive tips on what to include in their talks: What kind of education and training did you need to get? What do you do during the day? How do you like your job? What was the path you have taken to get to your current job?
“The students need to understand that not everybody knows what they want to be in ninth or tenth grade, that these things evolve as people learn different things and try different jobs,” says Anderson. “The commonality is that each person got education and training and had the desire to work.”
Create an internship where a high school student can gain work experience. These paid internships are for high students who have successfully completed Job Ready, a three-month work readiness program through the Boys and Girls Club, plus an internal internship. Anderson assures companies that students will indeed be job ready. “We have pre-screened the kids through our 24-week process,” he says. “By the time we refer them, we have confidence that they are not going to embarrass us and themselves.”
Job Ready, which meets twice a week, examines how to search for jobs that meet students’ career interests; how to create a resume, fill out a job application, and have a successful interview; and, once they have a job, how to keep it.
When students graduate from Job Ready, they get a paid internship at the club, where they can practice the skills they have learned, like showing up on time and following directions. Work venues at the club include working in the computer labs or assisting staff in art or physical education programs. This internship lasts three months, with work responsibilities two days a week for a couple of hours.
Students who have successfully completed Job Ready and an internal internship will either become junior staff at the club or will be placed in an internship in an area business. Both are paid positions. Some area companies that participate are PNC Bank, which rotates interns through different aspects of its business; Novo Nordisk, which take six or seven students in different areas, such as information technology and human resources; and Educational Testing Service, which usually offers summer employment.
Last year 250 high school students completed Job Ready. Some of these went out and got their own jobs, and about 175 participated in the club’s internal internship program. Of these about 40 are employed as junior staff and another 20 placed in outside internships.
The Job Ready program started about four years ago and each year a couple more companies have signed on. A big challenge has been transportation. Because few opportunities are available inside Trenton, students will have to use public transportation to get to an internship, unless the company can provide transportation.
Anderson grew up in West Windsor and now lives in Montgomery. His mother was a school teacher and his father a school psychologist, and Anderson himself earned his bachelor’s degree in physical education teaching and his master’s in exercise physiology from East Stroudsberg University.
A former physical education teacher, Anderson worked with the YMCAs of Princeton and South Brunswick for 17 years, then became executive director of Doylestown Hospital’s health program. After realizing he was starting to miss working with young people he took the job at the Boys and Girls Club of Trenton.
Egenolf explains why he participated in a career fair last spring. “For a lot of kids, they don’t have a sense of what type of work is out there for them,” he says. “The fact is that they come from households where no one has every gone to college or had a trade they had to learn, and they don’t necessarily have a role model to figure out what steps they have to take or someone to point them in the right direction.”
He avers that the career preparation and fairs serve a valuable goal. “It helps them understand the importance of school, of being a responsible young person, of getting a sense of what the future can hold for them, and it helps them have hope or promise for the future.”