Capital High School senior Emily Garcia knows she wants to be an entrepreneur.
She wants to be her own boss, though she’s not certain what kind of business she hopes to run.
But she has a plan: after graduation in May, Garcia will start pursuing a degree in business at the University of New Mexico.
Still, it’s difficult for high school students to envision what life looks like for an entrepreneur — or hotel manager, master mechanic, art teacher or any other job in which students might be interested — without trying it out for yourself, Garcia said.
“I feel like we all say we want to do a certain job,” Garcia said. “Once we start doing it, we realize maybe that’s not for us.”
It’s a challenge a lot of high school students face as they think about the future, said José Villarreal, work-based learning coordinator at Santa Fe Public Schools. Regardless of whether they plan to attend college, students have a tough time imagining a career they’ve never tried.
Santa Fe Public Schools’ work-based learning program is designed to combat the problem, Villarreal said, by offering high school students a taste of what their career might look like in Santa Fe and removing barriers to accessing internships and other work experiences. Piloted at local hotels during summer 2022, the program offers students a glimpse into careers from nonprofit management to manufacturing, teaching to local government.
This winter, the district and the city of Santa Fe forged a work-based learning partnership, leveraging nearly $800,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funds earmarked for youth workforce development. Organized by the city’s Office of Economic Development and Youth and Family Services Department and Santa Fe Public Schools’ leadership, the agreement — the first of its kind in New Mexico — will provide funds to pay student interns $14 an hour through the next two years.
“We greatly appreciate the city’s partnership with the district and its investment in our youths,” Santa Fe Public Schools Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez said in a news release. “This program is meeting employability needs across many sectors, which is a benefit to employers and students. It’s a prime example of what can be accomplished when everyone is at the table for the betterment of all.”
Here’s how work-based learning works: After three weeks of employability skills boot camp — including lessons in résumé building, interview and email etiquette, time management, professionalism and more — Villarreal and his team place students with employers.
This school year, that list of employers has expanded beyond local hotels and now reaches to a dentist’s office, arts nonprofits, 3D printers, the state departments of Transportation and Arts and Cultural Affairs and more, Villarreal said. Internships are also available in the city’s legal, accounting, health and information technology departments, libraries and the Mayor’s Office as well as Santa Fe Public Schools’ own early childhood education center and K-12 classrooms.
This placement structure also eliminates an important opportunity gap. For decades, Villarreal said, students’ abilities to secure an internship has been dependent upon who they know — or, more likely, who their parents know — and the financial ability to work for free. This program removes both of those barriers to internship access.
“Work-based learning really serves as a bridge between education and the workforce,” Villarreal said.
Once they’ve been placed, students work from six to 20 hours a week in a paid, structured internships, with support from both classroom teachers and mentors at their worksite.
Garcia, for instance, secured an internship at Creative Startups, a business startup lab with offices in Santa Fe. She’s now working on two projects for the company, said Garcia’s mentor and Creative Startups co-founder and CEO Alice Loy: Contacting local businesses to connect with mentors for the organization’s small-business and entrepreneurship program and planning the first-ever Santa Fe Youth Startup Challenge, an entrepreneurship competition for high school students.
Although the skills students pick up differ based on their choice of career and internship placement, Garcia said the program helps kids like her gain confidence in their skills.
That’s certainly been true in her case, she said. All of the emailing, phone calls and other forms of outreach required of small-business owners come more easily now.
“So far, I’ve noticed that I’ve become more confident in what I’m doing. I used to just be in this bubble, and I was very afraid of being out there and communicating with people,” Garcia said. “But this job has given me the opportunity and the confidence to be able to do that. I love what I do.”
But the work-based learning program doesn’t just benefit students.
In addition to providing paid-for labor, Loy said bringing in local high school students has helped Creative Startups better understand Gen Z employees — the eldest of whom, born in the last years of the 1990s, are now entering the workforce — through hands-on training and community-mindedness while incorporating their fresh perspective.
“It has enabled me to better understand the needs of our future workforce,” Loy said of Creative Startups‘ young internships. “… It has taken us in new creative directions because they bring a new mindset to how to solve problems and understand opportunities and reach out to people and find resources.”
That is exactly how the program is meant to assist employers, Villarreal said: It allows them to test — and learn about — the next generation of workers while capitalizing on the digital natives’ skills.
With investment of the city’s COVID-19 relief funds, the program is secure for at least the next two years, and Villarreal is looking forward to growth in the number of students and employers participating in work-based learning. As the program continues to grow, he said, the city has agreed to amend the contract, providing more funding with more interns.
He’s also excited to find out whether his students enter the career or college pathway they explored in work-based learning.
Hopefully, those involved said, the program will inspire students to acquire and apply their skills locally.
“It was sort of a personal realization of how hard it is for our kids to find professional pathways that allow them to see their future here,” Loy said. “… For Creative Startups to be able to support that by having internships here was a no-brainer.”
“We want to grow our own,” Villarreal added. “We want to make sure that when we follow our students after high school, [we ask] ‘Did you actually get to stay here and build a family?’ ”
The program, he added, hopefully will show students how bright the future could be in their hometown.