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Real-world, on-the-job training is a critical component for HopeWorks students

Aisling Maki | The Daily News

“HopeWorks, Businesses Give Hope Through Internships”

A number of local businesses are offering hope to the city’s chronically unemployed in the form of internships that provide real-world, on-the-job training.

The program is coordinated by HopeWorks, a 22-year-old nonprofit, faith-based organization dedicated to helping poor and chronically unemployed Memphians find steady work.

Students enroll for 13 weeks in the program, which uses a holistic approach that includes daily classes, counseling, mentoring, community meals, computer training, job interview preparation, GED preparation and much more.

“The internship piece is a pretty critical piece,” said Ron Wade, executive director of HopeWorks, 1930 Union Ave. in Midtown. “Like anything else, you can hear theory all the time about what you should do, but until you actually get there and get your hands dirty, it’s just the practical part.”

Students attend class weekdays from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For several weeks, they explore the type of work that most interests them by searching through occupational handbooks and discussing their interests with staff members, who help them narrow their searches in terms of background and education.

“The basic idea behind it is that if you choose something you enjoy as a career, it’s less likely you’ll leave when there are bumps in the road,” Wade said.

Once students select a field of interest, the staff looks through its database of companies within that sector that will allow students to work as interns for up to six weeks.

“We’ll brainstorm to figure out who we have a relationship with who’d be able to provide that internship,” Wade said.

Participating businesses and organizations include Broadway Pizza, Memphis Computer Cooperative, The Regional Medical Center at Memphis, Shelby County Juvenile Court, Trezevant Manor and Semmes-Murphy Clinic. Internships range from clerical to mechanical to maintenance positions.

Makowsky, Ringel and Greenberg LLC, a company that owns, manages and develops residential and commercial properties, has been involved in the HopeWorks internship program for several years.

“I believe very strongly in what HopeWorks does,” said Barbara Taylor, MRG vice president of administration, who also serves as secretary of the HopeWorks board of directors. “It provides interns the opportunity to work in a field they think they might like to apply for, and it gives them an opportunity to see what it’s really like. … It’s been a great experience for us to see someone become successful.”

Students, who participate in internships on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, are required to “work like they’re on the job,” Wade said. “You never know in this economy, with people changing jobs and such, an employer may add a position. So you really need to put everything you’ve got into that job because you never know what’s around the corner.”

On Thursdays and Fridays, students return to the classroom, where they process what they’ve learned, reviewing work skills and etiquette and discussing challenges.

Companies don’t pay the interns, but students do receive a small stipend from HopeWorks.

“You’re providing an opportunity to someone who hasn’t had one in the past, and you’re getting some work done and it doesn’t cost you anything,” Wade said. “We give the students a stipend so they can get used to handling a check, and oftentimes this is the first check they’ve ever received.”

HopeWorks students come from challenging backgrounds that have left them chronically unemployed. Roughly 60 to 70 percent don’t have a high school diploma, most have little, if any, family support, many come from generational poverty, and about half have been incarcerated.

“What happens is they become pretty discouraged, and the recidivism rate is so high for ex-felons that oftentimes if they don’t get a job, they resort back to crime and go back to jail and you’ve got that cycle,” Wade said.

For many students, HopeWorks becomes their family and remains an anchor of continuing support long after they’ve graduated form the program. Wade said about 35 to 40 graduates contact the organization each week, and Wade hopes to implement additional support for graduates, including monthly meetings to discuss job-related issues.

“Staying in touch is pretty important – we want to make sure that if you get a job, you’re keeping it,” he said.

Wade said the door is wide open for local businesses that would like to get involved in HopeWorks’ internship program.

“I think it takes a business that really is invested in our city to kind of heed that call,” he said. “Sometimes they’ll be surprised if that employee sometimes turns out to be the best employee that they have. We’re looking for companies that will step up and at least entertain the idea of internships. It’s not guaranteeing a job, it’s just giving someone an experience, and you never know where that will lead.”