When our library first began hiring teen summer interns, it was our goal to provide a first job experience and job skills training to at-risk and low-income young adults. We knew we would have to teach our kids the basics: filling out an application, showing up on time, and communicating with coworkers. We wanted them to go through the same orientation process as any other new staff member, including all the paperwork. It was through this process that we uncovered barriers and knowledge gaps among our kids that we had not prepared for.
Many librarians are already familiar with the concept of “Summer Melt.” Up to 40 percent of low-income and first generation students that are accepted to college do not show up for their first day of class. Sometimes they face an unexpected crisis at home. For many others, though, the barrier is something relatively small. They haven’t filled out paperwork correctly. They aren’t sure how to pay for books. They forgot to turn something in on time. These are problems that could be solved, but students don’t know always where to get help.
By taking our interns through the standard orientation, we uncovered many of the same roadblocks. Of the thirteen interns we have hired in the last three years, five could not produce two forms of ID. Only two knew their social security number. At least four experienced a period of housing insecurity. One intern did not know what to do with a check. Our kids needed much more than just job training.
We also saw an opportunity to talk about topics that are usually too dull or distant to interest teens. Interns asked what we meant by “benefits.” They wanted to understand retirement savings. They had questions about paying taxes. Although many libraries have found success with programs on “life hacks” or “adulting,” it remains extremely rare to engage young adults in these more difficult subjects.
Any library considering a teen internship program should prepare to provide this kind of support. You need to know how to apply for a copy of a birth certificate in your county. You need to have a good contact at your local social services agency. Those of us that work in low-income communities consider ourselves well-versed in these services, but even we can be caught off-guard. Teens don’t always recognize that they are missing important documents and their brains aren’t wired to think about retirement, so these issues rarely come up.
The internship program creates a unique space where teens are motivated to tackle difficult, “real world” problems, but it reaches a very small percentage of our community. Our experience opened our eyes to an important role we can play in the lives of young adults, whether they are college-bound or not. The challenge for us now is to find a way to bring these services to more teens in our community.
What is your library doing to get kids ready for adulthood? What partnerships have you built in the community to reach these teens?
Elizabeth Lynch is the Teen Services Coordinator at Addison Public Library in Addison, IL.