Economy Slices Into Internship Programs
Some D.C. Students on Wait List After Firms Cut Back Opportunities

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Among the anonymous victims of the plummeting stock market are 30 D.C. high school seniors who wrote essays, garnered teacher recommendations and attended job training sessions every day for a month. It was all to give them a shot at landing an after-school internship at some of the Washington region's biggest corporations.

And it was all for naught.

Several companies that regularly participate in the nonprofit Urban Alliance's rapidly expanding internship program for District public high school students said they were unable in a collapsing economy to hire enough students this fall. It is part of a growing national trend in which some of the country's largest businesses have cut back on internship opportunities that often benefit some of the least-fortunate youths. It is also a sign of these frantic economic times that companies with revenue in the hundreds of millions decided they could not afford to hire a student for a tax-deductible $9,500.

Fannie Mae, the mortgage giant recently taken over by the federal government, hired no intern this fall but plans to host students next summer. Corporate Executive Board and The Washington Post Co. are among area businesses that hired fewer interns this year than in 2007.

Officials at the firms said they remain committed to the program, and some are looking for ways to hire more interns. But the cutbacks mean that about 30 of the 150 students who successfully completed Urban Alliance's job training program last month are on a waiting list.

"I felt I tried hard, had a good interview and did everything I could, but I was surprised when I couldn't get a job," said John Hamilton II, 16, of Northeast Washington. "I never really thought that the Wall Street collapse would affect me."

An internship would have given Hamilton a leg up in applying to college. A senior at McKinley High School, Hamilton wants a career in radio broadcasting or public relations. His mother, a real estate appraiser, raises him and his younger brother alone, but business has been so slow that she works a night job at Macy's.

"I wanted the internship," he said. "I'm really disappointed."

Hamilton is one of many underprivileged and aspiring students nationwide who are seeing doors shut because of corporate belt-tightening.

"Things are even more dire for young people, particularly low-income youth, as companies cut back," said Mala B. Thakur, executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition.

This summer, the teen employment rate hit its lowest level in 60 years, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

At nonprofit organizations that rely on corporate giving, there is deep anxiety as finance firms merge and many companies reconsider their philanthropic programs.

"It's unfortunate -- ironic, actually -- that when we need our corporate partners the most, oftentimes their nonprofit investments are one of the first things that get cut," said Steve Culbertson, president of Youth Service America.

Urban Alliance was founded in 1996 by Washington business leaders to develop job training and internship programs. It has since expanded from Anacostia High School to 16 city schools. Demand is soaring; the number of applications doubled this year to 400.

The program boasts results: Nearly every participating student graduated from high school on time, and about 88 percent have enrolled in college.

Many area companies, including the World Bank, Morgan Stanley, Marriott and Bank of America, hire several interns every year and are continuing this fall.

"It's an amazing opportunity for both the students and for us," said Viki Betancourt, World Bank community outreach manager. "We want the kids who don't necessarily have this opportunity someplace else."

Still, the economy has put new pressures on Urban Alliance. "We have never, ever had job sites that had positive experiences . . . but told us they can't do it because of funding," said Veronica Nolan, the organization's executive director.

Urban Alliance does not guarantee each student an internship. Still, the students hope that by completing the training program they will be rewarded with jobs.

"We have never, ever been unable to provide jobs for all the kids who go through the training," Nolan said.

"The economy is hitting us in the sense that the growth that we had hoped for isn't there, but in no way are we shrinking in size," said Winston B. Lord, an Urban Alliance board member. "The dollars don't go around right now."

Fannie Mae has hosted students for the past four summers. It did not hire a student this fall but hopes to have interns next summer. "We have enjoyed our partnership," spokeswoman Christina McHenry said.

Corporate Executive Board hired five or six interns in previous years, but the consulting firm has one this fall. Spokeswoman Tracey Reina said the company might hire more. "The door hasn't been closed," she said.

The Washington Post Co., which had four Urban Alliance interns last year, hired one this year. Spokesman David Jones said the company will help Urban Alliance recruit other area corporations and assist with its promotional campaigns.

In recent days, Nolan has visited many companies to find jobs for students on the waiting list. "These kids did what they were supposed to do," Nolan said. "We feel we're so close and we need to get these kids more jobs. How can we give up?"

Alonda Gray, 17, of Southeast Washington said she is heartbroken about not getting an internship. Gray's life so far has been a tough journey. She and her sisters were raised by their grandmother (her father has long battled drug addiction), but their grandmother died of cancer in 2005. After that, Gray's grades slipped as she helped take care of her six younger sisters.

"I have to be the one to do their hair, to wash their clothes, make sure they don't quit school, help them with their homework," Gray said.

But she improved her grades at Friendship Collegiate Academy and won a $50,000 college scholarship through the D.C. Achievers Program. She said it didn't matter where she interns as long as she learns about the professional world before entering it on her own.

"To succeed, it's not an option -- it's more like an obligation," Gray said. "I've been through a lot of poverty and hardship in my community, and I'm not even 18 yet. I feel like I owe this to my family.

"Nobody in my family went to college, and half didn't even finish high school," she continued. "I'm the first to get this far."

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