Summer jobs program explores career options Federal effort forsakes menial labor for academics and workplace experience

August 10, 1998|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

Last school year, Brandon Briggs worked at a fast-food restaurant near his Woodlawn home. But this summer, the 16-year-old is being paid to spend his summer at Catonsville Community College learning about careers in printing and machine tools.

Wearing a bright orange T-shirt and matching bandanna, Brandon rolls his eyes and laughs when asked which job is better. It's no contest, he says.

"This is interesting. It's good. It can help you succeed in life," he says.

Brandon and 13 other high school students are participating in the newest phase of a 30-year-old federal summer jobs program that has evolved from a way to pay disadvantaged youths for menial summer labor to one that seeks to expand their personal vistas.

Instead of picking up trash or repairing public facilities, Brandon's group is exploring computer-aided careers in printing and machine tool making. Across the county, other youths are sharpening their academic skills and working for public agencies doing tasks tied to possible careers.

"We're trying to tie together what they learn in school and how it applies in the workplace," says Claudia Morrell, who supervises the program at the Catonsville college.

Gloria Sandstrom, manager of youth programs for Baltimore County, says this year's $1.2 million program has put 823 young people to work at minimum-wage jobs for five to seven weeks. Several hundred more students were turned away for lack of money.

Students are taking part in a variety of jobs and activities, from clerical work in county schools and libraries to half-days spent on math and English.

At General John Stricker Middle School near Dundalk, 10 students ages 14 and 15 spend mornings in classes designed to improve their academic and job skills. In the afternoons, they do maintenance or clerical work.

"It's been a lot of work," says Justin Jones, who will be a ninth-grader at Dundalk High School and has worked at Sollers Point/Southeastern Technical High School this summer. "But the money has been great. I'm going to use it to buy new clothes for school."

The Catonsville-based printing and machine tool making program, which pays $5.15 an hour over seven weeks, is the newest wrinkle to the federal youth jobs effort.

In addition to 90 minutes of work-related reading and math each six-hour day, students learn to do graphic design on a computer and the sophisticated software programs that control the precise industrial machines.

"This is a simulated work environment," says Charles J. Benjamin, the teacher. "We teach about the work ethic -- paychecks, life goals and how to get them."

The teen-agers at Catonsville are writing and printing personal newsletters and business cards, and each week they take a field trip. Last week, the mostly 16- and 17-year-olds visited French Bray Inc. printing company in Glen Burnie to see six-color presses turn out professional work.

The Catonsville group has taken other trips to printing and binding firms and to Bethlehem Steel Corp. at Sparrows Point. This week, they plan a one-day excursion to Baltimore's Leakin Park with Outward Bound, an outdoor program that teaches teamwork and physical confidence.

Vallesha Parker, a 17-year-old Catonsville High School senior, says she's saving her earnings for senior year expenses. She wants to study computer graphics in college and believes the printing program is giving her advance experience. Producing the newsletters also gives the students practice in writing, reinforcing their English language skills.

Nick McNemar, 17, of Catonsville made up a story for his newsletter about a commercial fisherman who finds a skeleton in his nets, while Keyonia Williams, also a 17-year-old Catonsville resident, wrote a tale about a garbage collector who found $30,000 in a paper bag, turned it in and, when no one claimed it, bought a yacht and retired to the Bahamas.

Davey Patterson, 16, a Lansdowne High School junior, says he's expanded his vocabulary and learned about using computers.

"Computer technology is the wave of the future," he says, reflecting on information he and others learned during the visit to Bethlehem Steel. The giant plant once employed 30,000 people, they were told, but now delivers paychecks to only 4,000, and the number is still dropping.

"That's why I chose computers," says Patterson.

Pub Date: 8/10/98

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