Column: Paid internships lead to jobs for many who complete Opportunity Works program – Chicago Tribune

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DaeShawn Howard, 20, of Chicago Heights, speaks about his internship experience at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)
Jamel Blanton, 20, of Sauk Village, was eager to find work. He went to a job fair last year and learned about the Opportunity Works program.
That led to a paid internship in the information technology department at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights. When the internship ended, his boss offered him a job.
“I turned something I was interested in into making money,” Blanton said. “For so long I was afraid to leave my comfort zone. Thanks to this program, I was not only able to break through that but I was able to make money to help me and my family.”
Blanton and other speakers Friday addressed seven participants who are the latest to complete the eight-week Opportunity Works internship program.
The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership launched the program several years ago to place interns with employers in the transportation, distribution and logistics sector. Cook County recently injected $15 million of American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 funds to expand the program.
“We are able to offer internship placement in any sector where we have industry partners who are willing to host our interns,” said Alicia Clark, executive director of workforce development and community education at Prairie State.
Presenters hand a certificate to a participant Friday during an event celebrating interns who completed the Opportunity Works program. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)
Taylor Parks, 19, of Richton Park, parlayed her internship at the Crisis Center for South Suburbia in Tinley Park into full time work. The work at the nonprofit that helps people affected by domestic violence is much more rewarding than her previous experience working in retail, she said.
“I work with people who are passionate about helping others in unfortunate situations,” Parks said.
Latasha Hubert, the Crisis Center’s director of human resources and volunteers, said Opportunity Works interns can learn skills and gain experience in such areas as technology, social work and marketing.
“We get them engaged in what their career goals could be and what that could look like in the future and how their experience can make a difference in the world,” Hubert told an audience gathered for the graduation ceremony.
DaeShawn Howard, 20, of Chicago Heights, is among the seven graduates. He said Opportunity Works helped him figure out his options.
“Before I joined the program I had no idea what I was going to do,” Howard said. “I didn’t know what to do to keep going toward my career goals and express my artistic abilities.”
Howard’s internship was at Union Street Gallery, an art gallery in Chicago Heights.
Federal funding funneled through Cook County into the program covers costs for personnel, equipment and other expenses. Interns earn $15 an hour for $25 per week for six weeks and receive a laptop upon completing the program, Clark said.
Audience members applaud a participant who completed the Opportunity Works internship program Friday at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights. (Ted Slowik / Daily Southtown)
Interns receive $200 and gas cards for each of the first two weeks, when advisers train participants in foundational skills.
“We equip them to understand what an employer expects of them in regards to performance at the job site,” Clark said. “It goes beyond job skills.”
The training covers interview skills and resumes, she said.
“We even equip them with interview outfits,” Clark said. “It’s great to tell young people how to dress for an interview, right? But sometimes they don’t have the resources for that type of clothing.”
Omowale Casselle, director of Pritzker Tech Talent Labs Discovery Partners Institute at the University of Illinois, offered graduates advice about what to expect in the working world.
“Success in life is simply a series of good decisions that pays off in unimaginable ways,” Casselle said.
More than 30 groups have completed the eight-week program at Prairie State since its inception. Graduates are advancing in their careers and helping place newer participants in internships.
“As we climb, we also lift,” Casselle said. “That is such an important concept in our community.”
Companies and organizations that accept interns through the program are able to fill vacancies amid a shortage of workers.
“Employers have the opportunity to train their potential future team members,” said Inez Mackey, career mentor for the Opportunity Works program at Prairie State. “When you’re working at a job you’re part of a team.”
More than 1,300 participants have completed the internship program since its inception, according to the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership.
Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.
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