Paid internships lead to jobs through Opportunity Works

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 he finished his internship, his boss offered him a job.

“I turned something I was interested in into making money,” Blanton said. “For a long time I was afraid of leaving my comfort zone. Thanks to this program, not only was I able to overcome that, but I was also able to earn money to help myself and my family.”

Blanton and other speakers addressed seven participants Friday who are the last to complete the eight-week Opportunity Works internship program.

Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership launched the program several years ago to place interns with employers in the transportation, distribution and logistics industry. Cook County recently injected $15 million of funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 to expand the program.

“We can offer internships 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.

Taylor Parks, 19, of Richton Park, turned her internship at the Crisis Center for South Suburbia in Tinley Park into a full-time job. Working at the nonprofit organization that helps people affected by domestic violence is much more rewarding than his previous experience working in retail, he said.

“I work with people who are passionate about helping others in unfortunate situations,” Parks said.

Latasha Hubert, director of human resources and volunteers for the Crisis Center, said Opportunity Works interns can learn skills and gain experience in areas such as technology, social work and marketing.

“We get them to commit to what their career goals might be and what they might be like in the future and how their experience can make a difference in the world,” Hubert told an audience gathered for the commencement ceremony.

DaeShawn Howard, 20, of Chicago Heights, is among the seven graduates. He said Opportunity Works helped determine his options.

“Before I joined the show, I had no idea what I was going to do,” Howard said. “I didn’t know what to do to continue advancing towards my career goals and expressing my artistic abilities.”

Howard’s internship was at Union Street Gallery, an art gallery in Chicago Heights.

Federal funds funneled through Cook County into the program cover the costs of personnel, equipment and other expenses. Interns earn $15 an hour for $25 a week for six weeks and receive a laptop upon completion of the program, Clark said.

Audience members applaud a participant who completed the Opportunity Works internship program Friday at Prairie State College in Chicago Heights.

Interns receive $200 and gas cards for each of the first two weeks, when coaches train participants in fundamental skills.

“We equip them to understand what an employer expects of them when it comes to performance in the workplace,” Clark said. “It goes beyond job skills.”

The training covers interview skills and resumes, he said.

“We even outfitted them with interview attire,” 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 kind of clothing.”

Omowale Casselle, director of the Pritzker Tech Talent Labs Discovery Partners Institute at the University of Illinois, offered graduates advice on what to expect in the world of work.

“Success in life is simply a series of good decisions that pay off in unimaginable ways,” Casselle said.

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More than 30 groups have completed the eight-week program at Prairie State since its inception. Graduates advance their careers and help place newer entrants for internships.

“As we go up, we also go up,” Casselle said. “That is such an important concept in our community.”

Companies and organizations that accept interns through the program can fill openings amid worker shortages.

“Employers have the opportunity to train potential future team members,” said Inez Mackey, career mentor for the Opportunity Works program at Prairie State. “When you’re working on 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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