TeenQuest helps future employees stand out above the crowd

As the economy continues to straighten itself out, there is no doubt any edge a first-time employee can get on entering the working world is important. TeenQuest is here to help.
A recent piece of social commentary by California-based artist Brian Lopez-Santos was simple, and yet the message was loud and clear. A lined piece of paper with the words FIRST JOB penciled in and circled. Below it reads: experience necessary, apply online.

The reason the message rings so true is easy to decipher. With the way the world's economy has been struggling to get back on track, even the entry-level jobs that were nearly guaranteed employment for the last several generations are now being vied for by employees who have previous work experience.

So where does that leave today's youth? How can a teenager wanting to get their first job compete with someone who has on-the-job experience? The key is finding each and every way to get a foot in the door. In Genesee County, TeenQuest is here to help teens find them.

The program, which came from humble beginnings in 1989, is designed to help teens with workforce readiness. Since those early days, the program has evolved quite a bit, and now encompasses Career Prep, TeenQuest and Summer Youth Initiative programs, all administered by the Flint and Genesee Chamber of Commerce.

Officially, TeenQuest as it is run today began in 2005. They have graduated 3,694 students, including 452 this past year alone.

"Everyone is accepted into the program who is 14-18 years old, currently in Grades 9-12 and lives or attends school in Genesee County," says Rhetta Hunyady, VP of education and training for the Chamber of Commerce. "They must meet attendance requirements to graduate. They are allowed to miss only two sessions. Missing three removes them from the program, but they are encouraged to register again to complete the training."

The free-to-participants program, funded through a grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, requires students to attend the program two hours a day, Monday through Thursday, over the course of a five-week program.

"Students must commit to attending all sessions," says Hunyady, who adds a summer session is also offered for those who can't participate during the school year.

So what does a participant in the TeenQuest program learn that makes them a valuable entry-level employee? How about essentials like teamwork, business etiquette, work ethics, communications, goal setting and conflict resolution?

Presenters during the program work with teens in an environment that incorporates each skill, and then the students work in groups to practice the lessons being taught about that particular skill.

"They must demonstrate proficiency through written assignments and role-playing activities," says Hunyady. "The final 'test' is a mock job interview with community volunteers. Professionals from all disciplines--higher education, management, non-profits, small business owners, et cetera--volunteer to interview students and evaluate their performance as constructive feedback."

That all sounds great, but does it really work? Just ask Landon Hendricks and you'll get a solid affirmative.

Hendricks, a 2007 graduate of TeenQuest, began working at Tim Horton following his time in the program. His performance on the job caught the eye of those above him, and just three months later he was promoted to a supervisor role. Shortly thereafter, he was promoted to general manager, skipping assistant manager altogether.

Hendricks says his time at TeenQuest taught him "what was expected in the work environment and to think ahead." Currently, Hendricks is hoping to move up the ranks at Tim Horton to a corporate position.

Not all students graduate high school and go on to college, and Hunyady and the TeenQuest program recognize that.

"TeenQuest is designed to help Genesee County youth prepare for success in the future by teaching them the skills needed to understand the expectations of the workplace and give them the skills necessary to successfully get a job and keep a job in the highly competitive 21st century job market," says Hunyady.

Those who complete the program are offered an opportunity to participate in the Summer Youth Initiative, which matches employers with TeenQuest graduates for summer employment.

More than 500 program graduates secured summer jobs with area non-profits through the SYI job program and with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources teen summer employment initiative.

One such summer hire was Dondre Young, now a project management and policy intern at Michigan United Conservation Clubs and a senior at Michigan State University. He is currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in social relations and policy. Young is a 2008 graduate of TeenQuest, and his first job was through SYI as a summer school assistant teacher.

It is possible Young's interest in such fields came about because of another aspect of the TeenQuest program. In addition to the in-classroom work, participants also participate in a volunteer opportunity set up by the chamber with local non-profit organizations. The opportunities have ranged from working in the Food Bank of Southeast Michigan, Paws for a Cause, North End Soup Kitchen and at the Crossover Ministries distribution center.

"Students are divided into work teams and transported to volunteer sites for a one-day event," says Hunyady. "(They are) then brought back together for lunch, and to celebrate successfully completing TeenQuest."

With the program seeing a surge in interest over the past few years, there's no doubt that the idea of prepping to enter the working world is catching on. TeenQuest gives Genesee County teens the opportunity to be a valuable employee from the moment they turn in their first job application--and that's a success story all in itself.

Sam Eggleston is the managing editor of Mid Michigan Second Wave. He was born and raised in Michigan, and his first-ever paying summer job was picking rocks out of a farmer's fields. He can be reached via email.
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