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By Mariya Greeley
| November 12, 2018
Fenway High School senior Carrie Mays remembers being quiet and insecure when she was growing up. “As an African American woman, I used to really not love myself,” she says. “Society and the media always showed the opposite and always said that it wasn’t beautiful for you to wear your hair out, and it wasn’t beautiful to be yourself.”
Her perspective began to shift when she started working at the Center for Teen Empowerment through MLK Scholars, a John Hancock program that provides paid summer jobs, leadership development, and financial education to over 600 Boston high school students each summer. “Teen Empowerment helped me discover the leader inside of me that I didn’t know was there,” she says.
Through her job at Teen Empowerment, a nonprofit, Mays gained practical experience working among peers and professionals while giving back to Boston. She helped organize and host solution-based discussions and events ranging from Black Lives Matter protests, to dialogues on racism with the police, to community movie nights and barbecues.
Now, after four summers as an MLK Scholar, Mays is a confident self-described “activist at heart and artist at soul” who smiles when she talks about performing at the annual MLK Scholars talent show.
MLK Scholars—named for the values and legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.—helped Mays find not only her voice, but also the beginning of her career path. At the program’s twice-monthly Mayor Menino Leadership Forums, “we talk about who we want to become in the future, how to become who we want in the future, what our resources are, and what the challenges we have to address are,” Mays says. “It’s very future action-oriented.”
So, who does Mays want to become and how does she plan to make that happen? “I want to go into marketing management or be an entrepreneur and incorporate my social justice work,” she says.
And Mays is currently taking the next step in pursuit of her dream: applying to college, where she plans to major in business.“My dream is now a goal that I will turn into a reality,” she points out, “because of MLK Scholars.”
We know that work experience does, in fact, help launch careers. In a national survey, the NACE Center for Career Development and Talent Acquisition found that college graduates who completed at least one internship received a job offer more quickly and had a higher first-position salary than those who didn’t. However, many internships are unpaid, thereby leaving behind low-income students who need to earn money over the summers. (Of 2017 college graduates who completed internships, nearly 45 percent were unpaid, according to a separate NACE survey.) Programs that provide a salary for meaningful work experience that would otherwise be unpaid, like MLK Scholars, can help to alleviate this systematic inequality.
As a teenager, Ron Carroll, director of The Boys and Girls Club Teen Center at Mattapan, participated in a program similar to MLK Scholars that “resonated with me early on,” he says. When he learned MLK Scholars was looking for nonprofits to partner with and take on student workers, he “knew it was going to be a great fit.”
The Mattapan Teen Center, which provides a safe haven for adolescents to mature, is one of about 70 organizations, mostly nonprofits, that hire MLK Scholars each summer. A mutually beneficial arrangement, the scholars acquire experience and skills that will help them once they enter the working world, while the nonprofits get much-needed extra hands.
With just six full-time staff members at the Mattapan Teen Center, “to bring on 10 vibrant, capable 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds to assist us is hugely helpful,” Carroll says. Some tasks they are responsible for are taking attendance, preparing the space for the day’s activities, and setting a good example for their peers by putting their phones away and asking questions during presentations. “They become our junior staff,” Carroll says, and ultimately help the Mattapan Teen Center achieve its mission.
With John Hancock providing $1,825 per MLK Scholar to each participating organization, the program is especially beneficial for nonprofits that are “constantly fundraising to keep the lights on,” Carroll says. “To be able to seek out other sources of income, that also add value to the young people who are working for our organization, it lightens the load.”
The majority of the grant money goes toward stipends for the MLK Scholars themselves. “Many of our interns might buy a pair of sneakers with the money that they earn,” Carroll says, “but many also help pay the electricity bill or bring some food into the house.” By earning a salary, the scholars learn how to be fiscally responsible and a contributor to their families, the workforce, and their community.
“The job security and the soft skills that they learn while they’re here are amazing for them and help catapult them into the world,” Carroll notes. “As they get older, they’ll be able to go out there and really add real value to the workforce.”
In addition to helping ease the summer workload for nonprofits and companies, MLK Scholars is designed to fill Boston’s hiring pipeline with more experienced and productive candidates.
Work experiences help students learn many of the transferable competencies employers across industries have trouble finding in entry-level hires, says Lou Gaglini, executive director of the Center for Career Development at Boston University, such as professionalism, a strong work ethic, and leadership skills. In a fast-changing economy, where tomorrow’s employees are likely to hold more jobs in more industries than previous generations, these transferable skills are invaluable to both employers and employees.
When Kristin Ezekiel, director of campus recruiting and strategic sourcing at John Hancock, interviews students for full-time roles, she looks for students who have had prior work experience. “Those who have had internships and co-op assignments tend to get promoted quicker, excel faster, and outperform their peers,” says Ezekiel, whose team recruits between 700 and 800 students every year.
Since they’ve had the opportunity to try out different positions, they’re also more likely to apply for roles that are a fit, minimizing turnover. That passion for an industry or role is important and apparent to interviewers, Ezekiel notes. When Mays eventually applies for marketing jobs, her confidence, self-awareness, and passion for business are likely to give her a leg up against other candidates.
Internship programs, “to us at John Hancock, are a feeder for full-time programs,” Ezekiel says. “We actually tap into our student pipeline before we even go out to university campuses for new students.” And upper management plans to increase hiring from this pool in the coming years, she says. “We know that we need the young people that think differently and have fresh, diverse perspectives.”
Systemic problems—such as low-income students missing out on opportunities that lead to jobs, nonprofits lacking staff, and companies wanting more skilled candidates—need systematic solutions. Over the last decade, MLK Scholars has honed their approach so that each of its three pillars—individual, societal, and corporate—is elevated by the other two. This self-enriching cycle ultimately furthers one greater good: creating stronger, more equitable communities in the city we all call home.
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