Finding your first job is a big moment – and for many teens and young adults, downright scary. And if you grew up near the poverty line, you might face even tougher challenges that can keep you from feeling confident in the workplace.
Enter the Erie Summer Jobs and More (Summer JAM) program. Since 2013, Summer JAM has connected young people age 16-21 in Erie, Pennsylvania, with real-world professional experience at 60 Erie County businesses. Erie Insurance has partnered with the program since 2015, helping instill confidence and professionalism in more than 30 young people.
Summer JAM is a collaborative effort between Erie County, Erie County Gaming and Revenue Authority and the Erie Community Foundation, facilitated by the Greater Erie Community Action Committee (GECAC). Participants, or their families, must have a household income equal to or less than stated guidelines. That way, the assistance goes to the youth who need it most.
Kim Hirst, talent acquisition manager at ERIE, explained that Summer JAM participants learn essential skills that all employers look for – no matter the industry.
“They learn expectations related to being a reliable employee,” she said. “Things like good attendance and punctuality; how to dress appropriately for the work environment; how to effectively communicate in a business environment; and how to function as part of a team.”
What Summer JAM participants do at ERIE
The professional training starts on day one at ERIE. Participants begin their first day like all other new employees: They attend orientation, tour the ERIE campus and receive a warm welcome by their supervisors and other ERIE leaders.
Once a week, ERIE’s Talent Acquisition department holds a “Lunch and Learn” training for Summer JAM participants. These sessions focus on soft skills that participants will come across throughout their careers. Topics include interviewing, workplace etiquette, social media, communication, exploring careers and dignity and respect.
Adaria Hopkins, 19, says she loves the time she spends as a Summer JAM participant working in ERIE’s mailroom for the past three years.
“Everyone is friendly—saying hi in the hallways and smiling—and helping me with things outside of the mailroom,” she said. “They showed me how to use Microsoft programs and taught me other things I wouldn’t have known.”
Now, Hopkins is a student at Gannon University – right across Perry Square from the Erie Insurance campus in downtown Erie.
Larry Gates, 20, has spent the past four years of summer employment in ERIE’s Home Office.
“Because everyone (at ERIE) is treated the same, and everyone says hi to you no matter who you are, I have built the confidence to talk to anyone,” the Robert Morris University junior said of his Summer JAM experience. “I’ve learned about networking, and how to give an elevator pitch.”
Throughout the summer, ERIE provides additional resources and connections to build participants’ résumés. As a networking opportunity, ERIE’s Talent Acquisition team connects young people with representatives in business areas where they have expressed interest.
Hopkins says she plans on entering the healthcare field after graduation. The skills she learned at ERIE are applicable to her current and future goals, she explained.
“I learned how to keep an organized space and act career-minded in a professional environment,” she said.
Hopkins sees these skills giving her an advantage in the occupational health field over others without any professional experience.
However, the benefits don’t extend just to the students. Back at the Talent Acquisition department, Hirst said she feels a boost from participating in the Summer JAM program on the employer side, too.
“What I personally observe is a real growth in their confidence levels by the end of the program,” she said. “And that’s quite rewarding to be a part of.”
To find out more information about the Summer JAM program, visit the official Summer JAM Facebook page or the GECAC website. For other stories about how ERIE gives back, follow ERIE’s efforts to make a difference in our community through the Giving Network, or search #ERIEforgood on social media.
Abby Badach Doyle and Raychel Adiutori contributed to this story.