To Tommy Knight, 14-year-old Noah Boykin is more than just an intern.
“He’s like my son in a way,” said Knight, the inventory manager of technical services at the University of South Carolina in Columbia.
Boykin interns for Knight at university technology services through the Summer Work Experience Leadership Program, or SWELP, a career development program for youth ages 14 to 19 hosted by the Columbia Urban League.
“I try to tell him things that I would tell my daughter: to be patient, to be courteous,” Knight said. “I tell him, ‘OK, here’s what you need to do,’ and from the experience of what I know, to take that with him in life.”
In a country that has most of its teenage work force serving appetizers, SWELP provides hundreds of local teens every summer with an opportunity to work in a job that reflects a long-term career interest. That’s more important than ever as they prepare to enter a competitive work force that has left many of their peers unemployed.
Since it was founded in 1984, the program has placed these young people in positions at places such as colleges, community centers, parks and recreation, state government and the department of social services. Interns earn a $250 stipend upon completion of a two-week work assignment.
For Boykin, a rising Spring Valley High School freshman who hopes to someday enroll in USC’s engineering school, his work assignments – sorting computer parts, helping to install phones and running inventory on all things technological – have been valuable previews of his future career.
But the most important things he’s learned run deeper than an underground phone line.
“I’ve learned responsibility, maturity, work ethic, business etiquette and just how to handle yourself and control yourself at a job site,” he said.
Programs like SWELP couldn’t be more needed in a modern workforce that continues to leave millenials – especially African-American millenials -- behind.
In a report published in July by Young Invincibles, a national organization that represents the interests of young adults, the unemployment rate of people ages 18 to 34 is at 9 percent, a significantly higher number than the overall unemployment rate of 6.1 percent.
The report also says that 16.7 percent of young African- Americans ages 18 to 34 are unemployed – that’s more than double the number of their white peers, who stand at a 7.6 percent unemployment rate.
“If you look at the statistics, we are at a crisis as far as work for young people. … When it comes to minority kids, you find out they have been hit hardest by the stagnation in the economy,” said James T. McLawhorn Jr., president and CEO of Columbia Urban League, which has made the fight for equality in the work force a cornerstone of the organization.
As far as improving the employment rate of young adults goes, McLawhorn says an emphasis on the importance of summer jobs is a good place to start.
“Summer work is more than just a job, it provides opportunities for life skill development,” McLawhorn said. “People who work are less likely to drop out of school. They do better academically and they have better relationships with folks because it gives them the opportunity to improve their social skills – life is all about building relationships.”
The building of these relationships could be the key to closing the racial gap in employment, according to Nancy DiTomaso, author of The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism.
“Since most Americans, white and black, live virtually segregated lives, and since advantages, privileges and economic progress have already accrued in favor of whites, the additional advantages that flow from this help go almost exclusively to whites,” DiTomaso said in an interview last year with the Huffington Post.
This means that relationships like the one between Knight, who is white, and Boykin, an African-American, may be a beacon for ending the racial differences in employment.
As an African-American preparing to enter this statistically unforgiving work force, Boykin has gained an edge on the competition through the SWELP program.
“All he wants is a break to grow and to learn,” Knight said. “He’s come in with a great attitude that not a lot of young men come in with. Most young men just wanna see a paycheck – he wants to learn.”