Workforce Readiness - Learning by Doing

By Elizabeth Agnvall Jun 13, 2008
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HR Magazine, June 2008Cristo Rey high schools help students prepare for the real world.

Most days, TaShawn Black, 15, leaves her house in southeast Washington, D.C., and heads for Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School in Takoma Park, Md. But on Fridays, she commutes downtown to work in the accounting department of Howrey LLP.

There, she creates purchase orders and vouchers and verifies the information in the computer, all the while participating in the real, albeit somewhat rarified, world of a top antitrust and intellectual property law firm.

"I want to be a lawyer, but I'm learning that there is more to a law firm than just being a lawyer. There's accounting, human resources, IT. There's a whole lot of backbone," Black says.

At first, the young woman found it daunting to sit behind a big desk with a computer and a phone, and felt shy among her co-workers in corporate suits, but now she loves going to work.

Don Bosco students, like all students in the nationwide network of Cristo Rey college-prep high schools, participate in work-study programs that fund most of their education. One of the newest of 19 Cristo Rey schools in the United States, Don Bosco opened in August 2007 for 127 freshmen; administrators plan to add a new class each year.

Ninety percent of about 4,000 students at Cristo Rey schools -- spread from Baltimore to Sacramento -- are members of minority groups with family incomes averaging $33,500. They work one or two days a week in entry-level jobs at law firms, construction companies, banks and other companies to help pay tuition and, perhaps more important, to gain experience in the corporate world. Deloitte & Touche, Nike, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Texas Instruments number among the 964 companies that hire Cristo Rey students nationwide.

The real-life skills they learn are valuable commodities at a time when employers report that high-school graduates lack basic workplace skills. In a competitive global marketplace, many employers complain that high-school and even college graduates emerge unprepared for employment.

A 2006 study found more than half of workforce entrants unprepared in crucial workplace skills, including professionalism and work ethic, critical thinking, and oral and written communication.

The survey of 400 employers, Are They Really Ready to Work?, published by The Conference Board, Corporate Voices for Working Families, Partnership for 21st Century Skills and the Society for Human Resource Management, found that although professionalism and work ethic ranked as one of the three most important skills needed by employers, 70 percent of employers rated high-school graduates deficient in that area. The other two: teamwork and collaboration and oral communication.

A study released in March by The Conference Board found that 85 percent of employers concerned with hiring creative people report that they can't find the applicants they seek. That study, Ready to Innovate, concludes that employers need employees who can identify and articulate problems as well as solve them.

Labor economist Linda Barrington, Ph.D., research director at The Conference Board, says the research shows that although basics such as written English and math skills are necessary, they aren't enough.

"Employers are saying that there is a skills gap," Barrington says.

Filling the Gap

Father John Foley, a Jesuit priest, founded the first Cristo Rey high school a decade ago to create a college-preparatory high school in Chicago's Pilsen-Little Village neighborhoods, where neither students nor churches could afford private-school tuition. A management consultant suggested that Foley's students work to pay for their education.

Employers pay the school $25,000 to $30,000 for each job a student does, thereby covering 70 percent of all tuition costs. Direct payments allow the schools to administer payroll, taxes and benefits. Most families receive some aid to cover the remaining tuition.

In poorer neighborhoods -- where 50 percent high-school drop-out rates are common -- the four-year drop-out rate for the 16 established Cristo Rey high schools is less than

3 percent. An impressive 99 percent of the 318 graduates in 2007 enrolled in two- or four-year colleges. The success has attracted philanthropists with deep pockets: The Cassin Educational Initiative Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation have invested close to $30 million in Cristo Rey.

All Cristo Rey students attend a three-week summer training that includes a "boot camp" teaching the basics for survival in the corporate world -- from proper dress to how to use copy and fax machines to intensive courses in common office software.

Alicia Bondanella, executive director of the corporate work-study program at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, finds the "soft-skills" section of the boot camp vital. Students learn to give firm handshakes and look people in the eye.

Bondanella says some students must unlearn habits. "In their neighborhoods, they have to keep their heads down." Looking the wrong people in the eye can be dangerous.

Diving Right In

Russette Samuel, recruiting manager at Howrey LLP, says the Cristo Rey training has clearly paid off -- repeatedly calling the program "phenomenal."

In addition to Black, the firm employs three other Don Bosco students. Samuel asks them to check with her each morning before they go to their positions in human resources, IT and accounting. Since the Cristo Rey students began last fall, Samuel says she hasn't had to hire the temp workers that she normally does.

She says students "come here every day and function as normal employees would, with very little supervision." Samuel notes that the students' punctuality, hard work and eagerness to learn have made them valuable assets. Furthermore, she says, they improve office morale.

"They have as strong a work ethic as some of the adult employees. You see these students who you know have disadvantages. They are happy. They are upbeat. They are working extremely hard. It keeps all of us striving," Samuel says.

Managers at the firm were so pleased with the students' performance that they gave each one a laptop and a $100 gift card at an employee lunch, where, Samuel says, "There wasn't a dry eye in the house."

Darrell Romero, human resources systems manager of Kramer Levin Naftalis & Frankel LLP in Manhattan, echoes Samuel's sentiments about the students' work ethic. The law firm employs four students from East Harlem's Cristo Rey New York High in the human resource department to work on new-hire packets, track job listings, audit accounts, file and help with benefits fairs.

"Their computer skills are better than mine were coming out of high school," Romero says. "They are good kids, and they work hard."

Last year, when Manhattan's subway flooded, Romero says, one student walked 60 blocks to get to work.

"Half the employees didn't make it, but she showed up."

Rita Nielsen, director of human resources at Wildman Harrold, a 200-attorney business law firm in Chicago, supervises a group of 14 Cristo Rey students in the downtown office. Since 1998, Nielsen has been overseeing students from the Chicago Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, Father Foley's first school. The school sends students to 106 corporations, including Chase, Deloitte & Touche, Madison Dearborn Partners and Loyola University Health Systems.

Rather than have students float through several Wildman Harrold departments, Nielsen assigns four students to a single entry-level position, each working on a different day.

To ease the transition, Nielsen has students attend an orientation and trains them on their job assignment and on company policies. Students handle entry-level work such as filing and delivering copies. A department manager serves as a mentor for each student.

Work coordinators at Cristo Rey handle any problems that arise with students.

"When we have had problems, the school is on it right away," Nielsen says.

Nielsen also involves the firm's diversity committee in planning activities for the students. Members have arranged for a judge to speak to students in her chambers at the courthouse. Many students, she says, seem awed at first by the high-rise environment of Chicago's Loop.

"Many of those kids never went outside their neighborhoods. They never came to the downtown area. They are usually painfully shy, but the nice thing here has been that the employees love to talk with them."

Employers agree not to hire Cristo Rey students right out of high school because educators want them to go to college. One former Cristo Rey student, Guillermo Tobias, exemplifies those hired by their early employers after finishing college. He was hired by Wildman Harrold's IT department after he graduated with a degree in information technology.

Carlos De La Rosa, director of the work-study program at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, says the program succeeds because students do real jobs. It's not a community service project for employers: Students fill employers' needs.

De La Rosa says that in some cases supervisors are demanding and students become frustrated, but they are not allowed to change jobs except in extreme circumstances.

"We will walk them through the tough situations. They've got to understand that business is business. It's not personal," De La Rosa explains.

Getting Over Jitters

David Benavidez, 15, a student at Don Bosco Cristo Rey High School, works at Miller and Long Concrete Construction in Bethesda, Md. He is proficient in and uses Excel and Power- Point, logs and copies architectural drawings and sends them to the field, and performs other tasks in the company’s estimating office.

His managers have asked Benavidez to work during the summer, and he’s slated to take over his supervisor’s job while the supervisor goes out in the field. His primary duties will be processing requests for information and acting as a liaison between the architects and builders and construction managers.

Benavidez says the company’s organizational system inspired him to be more organized with his schoolwork and he now wants to study architecture or building construction.

“I’ve never been in that type of office environment. It was hard in the beginning, [but] I feel like I’ve been doing it all my life now,” Benavidez says. Lordes Rodriguez, 14, another Don Bosco student, copies, scans, files, and handles mail and packages at Opus East, a Washington, D.C., designbuild firm that develops commercial properties.

“I felt so nervous thinking that they wouldn’t like how I did my work,” Rodriguez recalls. She has learned to ask for extra time from co-workers to explain tasks as needed, and managers have invited her to work this summer. Several architects took the time to show her their drawings, and now she wants to study architecture.

“There are going to be more challenges in life,” Rodriguez says, but she’s gained confidence by conquering this one. Director of Human Resources Moria Waddy, who works for Sidley Austin LLP, an international law firm with 1,200 employees in Chicago’s Loop, says Margarita Tellez exemplifies Cristo Rey students. (For Tellez’s story, see “Living Life’s Visions.”)

The students’ “ethics are excellent: They don’t ask to leave early, they call if they can’t come in,” she says. “They are good employees. I’d like to say that the students are getting more out of it than we are, but I’m not sure.”

The author is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer.


Cristo Rey Network

School locations: Baltimore; Birmingham, Ala.; Cambridge, Mass.; Chicago; Cleveland; Denver; Indianapolis; Kansas City, Mo.; Lawrence, Mass.; Los Angeles; Minneapolis; New York; Newark, N.J.; Omaha, Neb.; Portland, Ore.; Sacramento, Calif.; Tucson, Ariz.; Washington, D.C.; Waukegan, Ill.

2007 revenue: The revenue for the paid work-study contracts for the 2007-08 school year is projected at $22,563,387.

Students: 4,235

Teachers and administrators: 648 at 19 schools

Participating employers: 964

Academic subjects: College-prep curriculum with business classes taught during summer training

Connections: The Cristo Rey Network, Chicago, www.cristoreynetwork.org; Rob Birdsell, president, (773) 890-6885, rbirdsell@cristoreynetwork.org


Living Life's Visions

​​​The Employment Contract Law does not change the basic framework for calculating overtime in China.

In 2000, when Margarita Tellez was a junior at the Chicago Cristo Rey Jesuit High School, she started working one day a week for Sidley Austin LLP, an international law firm with 1,200 employees in Chicago's Loop. She vividly remembers her first day.

It seemed "overwhelming," Tellez says.

She quickly learned to fax, file, use the copier and perform other duties in the human resource department, but it took some time before she was at ease.

"Everyone seemed so much older than me. There wasn't anyone that I could identify with. I didn't see anyone else who was Latina," Tellez recalls. She lived in the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood of Pilsen, far removed from the high-rises of downtown Chicago, but she had a vision of working in a corporate setting.

"I never really knew what I wanted to be, but I always saw myself dressing up and going downtown," Tellez says. Although her father worked in a factory and both of her parents only went to school until third grade, her parents supported her dreams of going to college and entering the corporate world. Employees at the firm encouraged her as well, especially Director of Human Resources Moria Waddy.

"The people that surrounded me were all very positive individuals. They were willing to teach me as much as I was willing to learn. When you have energetic mentors, it really draws you in," Tellez explains.

Tellez worked at the firm one day a week during the school year, and over summers and winter breaks. She studied sociology and political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. When she graduated, Waddy hired Tellez as an assistant in human resources. Now Tellez helps mentor other Cristo Rey students.

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