STEM Internships Help Foster Youth Break into High-Tech World

Santa Clara County, Calif., is located in the heart of sunny Silicon Valley, where, as former president Bill Clinton put it in opening remarks at the July 2015 Clinton Global Initiative meeting: “Believe it or not, not everyone is rich.”

Clinton was giving a shout-out to TeenForce, a social enterprise nonprofit, which one year earlier had made a bold Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) “commitment to action” along with partner Silicon Valley Children’s Fund. The two organizations would offer work-readiness training and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) paid internships to 100 percent of approximately 300 high-school-aged foster youth in Santa Clara County.

Now in its second year, the Foster Youth STEM and Work Readiness Training program will place 45 foster youth in internships this summer – a big jump from last year’s 16 – with employers such as Symantec and QuantumScape Corporation.

TeenForce Executive Director John Hogan founded the nonprofit in 2010 as a staffing agency matching teens with jobs in multiple sectors. While he hoped to help disadvantaged youth gain a foothold in employment, the staffing agency was from the beginning open to all youth ages 14 to 24 in Santa Clara County, including those from middle- and high-income families.

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Gilroy STEM students learning how to code with their robotics instructor, Nam Dinh. Photo Credit: Stephany Fuentes

Late in its first year, TeenForce partnered with Silicon Valley Children’s Fund (SVCF), which works to improve life outcomes of Santa Clara foster youth, to do direct outreach to foster youth who now make up about 60 percent of TeenForce clients.

After ramping up the work with foster youth, Hogan made a pie chart comparing the jobs that foster youth were getting to those that non-foster youth were getting.

“It wasn’t very good,” Hogan said. Foster youth in the program were being hired for entry-level retail, warehouse, labor and landscaping jobs while non-foster youth were getting high-level clerical, marketing, health care, even some tech support jobs.

“So that was kind of discouraging,” he said. “We’d gotten really good at getting foster youth – I don’t want to say ‘lousy’ jobs but not career-facing jobs – and yet we were getting other kids jobs that did have some career relevance to them.”

The current and former foster youth ages 18-24 being served by TeenForce, says Hogan, were really struggling – homeless or on the verge of homelessness, unstable educational experiences due to being moved from home to home, and in need of jobs but “really prepared for nothing except these most entry-level jobs.”

“We knew we were adding value to those youth,” Hogan said, “but we were not putting them anywhere near a career-facing pathway.”

So Hogan and his team decided they needed to find a way “to get to foster youth sooner, and do something really unique.”

Having learned about the Clinton Global Initiative process, TeenForce and SVCF made the CGI commitment in June 2014, which helped to jumpstart conversations with large tech companies. Symantec jumped in early with a commitment of $225,000 over three years.

About six months later, the STEM training and internship program launched, offering Santa Clara County high-school-aged foster youth the chance to complete 45 hours of technical training and 16 hours of work-readiness training over the course of nine Saturdays. Youth who complete the training are eligible for paid STEM internships the following summer.

Corporate volunteers provide the training alongside SVCF staff at the Tech Museum in San Jose. A second training location recently opened in Gilroy. The program has secured a contract with the Santa Clara County Office of Education to train additional instructors and expand the south county program.

To meet their goal of every Santa Clara County foster youth having the chance to complete the program twice while in high school, the partners aim to secure 110 summer internships. Training curricula include robotics, coding and office productivity. Through a partnership with Hack the Hood, some youth this summer will build websites for local small businesses.

“We’ve been knocking on high-tech corporate doors for years and years, saying ‘Pay attention to this problem,’” said Elise Cutini, executive director of SVCF. The partnership with TeenForce, she said, “has been a beautiful marriage of missions.”

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STEM student in a classroom at the Tech Museum organizing tools to start building his robot. Photo Credit: Katelyn Taubman

Eldon Ramoz, 18, completed an internship last summer at the San Jose Water Company.

“It’s a really good resource,” Ramoz said of the program. “Not only do they help you get a job but they actually get a job that fits you. They get what your interests are, and what you like to do. Not only do they make you more professional, but they make you feel like family. They helped me out a lot.”

Hogan says that while the program is often seen as a jobs program, it is really “an education program, and a stay-in-school program. We’re not teaching kids to be engineers or programmers in nine Saturdays but what we are trying to teach them is an optimistic outlook on their future, a reason to stay engaged in school, trying to connect ‘when I work hard, I can learn and get a reward … and maybe I should take that next math class and not sit in the back row.’”

At the heart of what the program provides, says Cutini, is exposure and access. “We wanted to demystify and break down that wall between our young people and all of this potential future employment in our community so they can see that they do belong in these environments … to see this community is your community and you belong here just like everyone else.”

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Melinda Clemmons
About Melinda Clemmons 27 Articles
Melinda Clemmons is a freelance writer and editor based in Oakland, California.

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