April 16 2021

Media story: Minneapolis Step Up program gets COVID creative to keep offering youth internship opportunities

Heidi Sundquist from Accenture

By Gail Rosenblum

Since 2003, Step Up has created more than 29,000 internship experiences for Minneapolis young people ages 14 to 21, offering job skills training and career opportunities to ready them for a diverse 21st century workforce. Not even a worldwide pandemic could halt this respected program, a partnership of the city of Minneapolis, AchieveMpls, CareerForce Minneapolis and Project for Pride in Living. Along with traditional paid internships in 2020, Step Up pivoted to paid virtual internships and career exploration opportunities, and virtual work readiness training. Heidi Sundquist, who has developed Step Up internships with her employer, Accenture, shares more about this summer's ambitious goals.

Q: When a lot of programs took a yearlong break, Step Up and Accenture jumped in to keep young people working. What were keys to your success?

A: Step Up was among the few programs in the country last summer that offered career opportunities for young people during COVID-19. While fewer internships were available, 466 Minneapolis youth still had paid internships with 62 employers. Shifting to online options was crucial. More than 1,000 Minneapolis youth participated in the Step Up paid online career exploration program in 2020.

Q: Accenture was poised to help in that regard. Can you say more about that?

A: Accenture had something to offer the young job seekers since all of our people and systems were already enabled for remote work. That allowed us to host Step Up interns from other companies that weren't able to accommodate a virtual intern. We developed Learning To Lead (L2L), a virtual, six-week summer internship program created to maintain and expand our intern commitment to our nonprofit partners. L2L offered Step Up's young people an opportunity to build skills they would have developed in a traditional internship, with topics including storytelling and public speaking, marketing, emerging technologies, data visualization, and personal and business finance. The program culminated in a final online project to showcase their new skills. We'll be offering it again virtually this summer.

Q: How many internships does Step Up hope to provide this summer?

A: Step Up's 2021 goal is over 2,000 Minneapolis youth participating in paid internships at over 70 companies and the Step Up paid online career exploration program. Young people who are not matched with an internship will be invited to participate in the Step Up paid online career exploration program. All participants will complete work readiness training and mock interviews.
Q: What does Step Up work readiness training entail?
A: Before young people are matched with Step Up internships, they complete a 16-hour training program that is certified by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. They learn critical skills for securing employment, such as doing job interviews and creating résumés, and functioning in a work environment, including workplace communication and etiquette, appropriate dress, networking and developing professional relationships. This now-virtual work readiness training helps interns build confidence, develop digital skills that are essential in the 21st century workplace, and be better prepared for their internships and future career opportunities.
Q: And then they have their mock interviews. Already scary! But interviewing seems like such an intimate, face-to-face proposition. How do you prepare them to do this well virtually?
A: The Step Up mock interviews went really well! Given that we were in individual Zoom rooms, it felt very personal and almost like being in-person. But even I had to focus on basics like sitting up straight and thinking about facial expressions, which are important during interviews. I think the feedback is really valuable — not just for high school students, but for everyone. After they are matched with an employer, they complete an internship interview with that employer to ensure that it's a good fit.
Q: What might be gained from virtual interviews, which are likely to be more the norm as we move forward?
A: There can be benefits from a convenience perspective. Candidates may feel more comfortable being in a familiar, comfortable space and being able to have notes stuck to their screen! That said, the technology needs to work, e.g. bandwidth, hardware, etc.
Q: What components of a good interview are needed regardless of how the interview is being conducted? How are you helping young people be impactful and impressive via computer screen?
A: My recommendations for a great interview at any point in your career includes eye contact, genuine interest and good storytelling. Hiring managers want to know that you want the job you're interviewing for. It's always a good idea to practice telling your story with a few personal, real-life situations that demonstrate leadership, problem solving and conflict resolution.
Q: What advice do you have for people of any age preparing for job interviews now that COVID limitations seem to be easing up?
A: Prepare, so you can articulate examples of your leadership qualities, conflict resolution, collaboration skills and strengths. Be able to tell a story. First impressions are important!
Read this column on the Star Tribune web site.

Photo credit: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune.