TOPICS > Education

Why After-School Jobs Keep Young Adults in School

December 31, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jobs can provide teenagers with an exciting glimpse of economic freedom, as well as a new set of responsibilities and money, often for the first time. But education experts say part-time and after-school jobs also play a pivotal role in keeping young people on the path toward high school graduation. Hari Sreenivasan reports.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Daniel Rodriguez is constantly curious. And for the 12th grader who dreams of one day going to medical school, his part-time job at this research science lab at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital is perfect.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ, student: I like knowing how things work, knowing, OK, this happens, so why does that happen?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Despite being just 18 years old, Daniel is already doing real work in this lab run by Alexander Lin, who has a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biophysics.

Daniel’s job on this day is to create an artificial equivalent to brain tissue known as a phantom. The phantom is later scanned by an MRI machine and then analyzed, an experiment that may one day help make cranial diagnoses possible without incisions into the skull and brain.

It’s a complicated research that Lin says gives Daniel new tasks and learning opportunities every day.

ALEXANDER LIN, Brigham and Women’s Hospital: We look at traumatic brain injury, schizophrenia, a number of neurological disorders, as well as other diseases in other parts of the body. And I think he really does have a good grasp of what we are trying to do.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The hospital has been hiring teenagers like Daniel for the past 12 years as parts of its Student Success Jobs Program.

Wanda McClain oversees the effort.

WANDA MCCLAIN, Brigham and Women’s Hospital: We’re starting at very early ages to try to help young people see that being in school is a direct relationship to being successful in school and being successful in your life and in your career.

HARI SREENIVASAN: McClain says the program was originally designed to give students mainly from minority backgrounds meaningful work experiences in the health care industry and that it’s been remarkably successful at keeping kids in school.

WANDA MCCLAIN: And 97 percent of the young people who are in the Student Success Jobs Program go on to college and complete college.

HARI SREENIVASAN: In the past few years, Boston has undertaken a city wide effort to get employers to hire students, realizing at the same time the benefits of growing an improved work force.

NEIL SULLIVAN, Boston Private Industry Council: It’s not natural to hire teenagers and bring them into workplaces where they have never played a role. What we do is say, give us a chance.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Neil Sullivan is the executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, known as the PIC. His office is in charge of connecting institutes like Daniel with employers like the Brigham and mentors like a Alexander Lin. Sullivan says every year the PIC links roughly 3,000 Boston students with summer job and school year internships.

NEIL SULLIVAN: It’s an economic imperative because we are not employing young people in this country. They are not developing the habits of paid work necessary to be productive. They are not imagining the careers that motivate them to complete their education. And this gets the job done.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It starts with teaching business basics, resumes, cover letters, even what to wear in professional settings. And then PIC professionals set up interviews for students with more than 300 employers that include Harvard University and Fenway Park, home to the Boston Red Sox.

NEIL SULLIVAN: We start with a presumption that all the young men and women who are coming to our high schools need to connect with the economy in a way that works for them, their families, and for the businesses that need to grow here in our city.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Education experts say getting students to focus on potential careers early and outlining clear connections to the relevance of school will help curb the dropout crisis going forward. According to the PIC, Boston’s push to hire students has helped increase high school graduation rates in the city by 11 percent over the past five years.

But Neil Sullivan admits the real battle begins in high school classrooms like Ali Via’s at Boston Latin Academy. Via teaches Daniel Rodriguez anatomy and physiology.

ALLY VIA, teacher, Boston Latin Academy: If you ask them to list the sort of jobs that are available, they will list doctor, lawyer, teacher, you know, the sort of obvious.

They don’t understand the wealth of opportunity in Boston or just in any one field. The challenge, I think, is getting more students to apply to take those opportunities.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, three years into the opportunity that paired him with Alexander Lin, Daniel says he has been able to successfully narrow his career focus.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ: What this program has done is kind of guided me through like, OK, so now that you know what science has to offer, what more specifically do you want to do?

HARI SREENIVASAN: Daniel’s ultimate dream is to become an emergency room physician. It’s a goal, he says, that stems from a tragedy in his childhood.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ: The reason why I want to be an E.R. physician is because — it actually came from an experience I had as a young kid from my grandmother. She was killed by a drunk driver. And this was in El Salvador.

I don’t want anyone else to experience the loss of another person, especially if it’s not their time. So, as an E.R. physician, I want to be that person that just looks at — just looks at the person on the gurney and just says, you’re going to be OK. You’re going to make it out of this and you’re going to see your family again.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Daniel says the money from his job gives him a small amount of economic freedom, but more important it offers him work in a professional environment, something he says he’s immensely grateful for.

DANIEL RODRIGUEZ: I know how to now behave in like an office setting, a lab setting, in a hospital setting. And all these different things can actually be vastly useful to me, especially in other careers.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Daniel is confident he will graduate medical school. And according to his mentor and boss, Alexander Lin, he’s already well on his way.

ALEXANDER LIN: Daniel is extremely studious and very good at what he is doing and really operating at the level of a college student. The benefits are tangible when you see this growth in a student like that.

And I think that is really what is the best thing about being a professor, is being able to see that growth in a student.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Daniel says he’s looking at premed programs at the University of Vermont and Boston University, after he graduates from high school next spring.