PITTSFIELD

School to Career Connecting Activities, a collaborative effort between public and private partnerships, is led by 16 local workforce investment boards in Massachusetts. The initiative provides high school students with paid internship opportunities in a wide array of occupations and industries from which students gain exposure to real world work opportunities, learn professionalism, responsibility and job readiness skills that help them become attached to the workforce in the future. Recent national surveys of employers and human resource managers have found increasing concerns with the employability skill deficiencies of young workers.

In 2007, connecting activities leveraged more than $45 million in employer wages, putting more than 17,500 students in internships at 6,500 employer sites. In 2012 alone with funding at only $2.75 million, more than 9,800 students were places in internships at 3,500 employer sites. With funding in the state budget for fiscal year 2013 at only $750,000 the program is facing extreme challenges.

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In 2012, the Berkshire County workforce investment area provided over 400 youth ages 14-21 with work-based-learning opportunities throughout 215 regional private, public and non-profit employers. Since the inception of Connecting Activities in 1998, 7,150 youth have participated in structured internship and work opportunities in partnership with 4,270 employers serving as the lifeline to ensure the region's future skilled workforce and sustainable economy.

The need for increased employment for the state's teens is greater than in many years. According to a recent study by Northeastern University's Center for Labor Market Studies, "In 2012, only 26 percent of the state's teens found themselves able to obtain employment during an average month." This was the lowest state teen employment rate ever recorded over the past 50 years for which such data exist. Fewer than 1-7 low income teens in high school in 2011 worked, In Massachusetts.

While many teens want to work, the opportunities are at the lowest level in more than 60 years. The Center for Labor Market Studies has documented that students who work during the senior year or in multiple summer jobs over their high school years are, "more likely to transition into college or the labor market after graduation." The habits learned in the workplace, such as productivity, teamwork, collaboration, problem solving, management and initiative, are paramount for the commonwealth's youth. This hands-on employment experience encourages students to take on new challenges and responsibilities which not only better prepare them for future career prospects, but also empowers students to step into mentoring roles with their peers.

Gerald Chertavian, Founder & CEO of Year Up and Chair of the Governor's Task Force on School to College and Career Readiness, commented, "The failure to integrate college and career readiness in our public schools is an immediate and growing crisis. Young adults become more engaged and motivated when they are exposed to the workplace- and that has a direct impact on higher achievement." The support from businesses, teachers and legislators is necessary to ensuring that all students in Massachusetts have the necessary skills to enter the job market or pursue post-secondary education or training.

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In meeting the state's College & Career Readiness Agenda, the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board, Inc. (BCREB) has launched an ongoing Employer Engagement Initiative to further engage regional employers within Connecting Activities to be able to offer additional career awareness, exploration and immersion opportunities for the region's youth. Annually, 1,500 youth participate in career readiness activities (internships, job shadowing, career fairs, etc.) with over 500 Berkshire County businesses serving as mentors for these enriching experiences. Through its Employer Engagement effort, the BCREB has developed an employer resource website located at www.Berkshirejobs4youth.org to encourage and inspire the Berkshire business community's continuous participation in Connecting Activities to help nurture and sustain the region's workforce.

Connecting Activities has proven to be the driving force to ensure the state's economic and social viability! The investment by the Massachusetts Legislature in sustaining and expanding Connecting Activities will serve to strengthen the future employment opportunities for the young people of Massachusetts. This is not only an investment in the youth themselves but also in the commonwealth's future workforce and its economic growth potential.

Albert Ingegni is president of the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board. Andrew Sum is the director of the Center for Labor Market Studies, Northeastern University.