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Summer program fosters job skills

Though she's home from college on summer break, Ondria Mells won't be relaxing at home in a T-shirt and shorts.

Every weekday, she wears a dress suit and heels to her job at the Pinellas Private Industry Council. She drives out to work sites to check on the progress of her company's interns, passes out time cards and paychecks and arranges intern evaluations.

Mells, 20, has not yet begun her senior year of college. She is one of 243 young people taking part in the Mayor's Summer Youth Intern Program. The program, which officially kicks off Monday, will provide summer jobs for young people ages 14-23 in the public and private sector.

"Many summer programs over the years have just been a program to give kids a few bucks in their pockets over the summer," said Bob Gilder, work program coordinator. "We're just the opposite of that."

Organizers say the purpose is to foster professional job skills that will last the youths beyond the summer. Each intern gets lessons on attitude, getting along with co-workers, career dress and making it to work on time.

"What we're trying to do is give the kids actual work experience," Gilder said. "For many of them, it is the first job that they've had."

Mells, who also made the cut last year, said the program is worthwhile for young people who are serious about understanding the work world.

"It taught me how to be professional," said Mells, who will be a senior next year at Oakwood College in Huntsville, Ala. "They're depending on you to do something for them. I guess I never really had that much responsibility before."

Funding for the program is the same as last year _ $250,000 _ but there are about 50 fewer positions. Deborah Lyons, Workforce coordinator for the Pinellas Private Industry Council, said last year's interns worked 25 hours a week for about six weeks. This year's group will work 30 hours a week for eight weeks.

The Pinellas Private Industry Council Workforce processes and assigns the applicants.

Besides age restrictions, potential interns must meet family income guidelines and be St. Petersburg residents. Income guidelines vary, depending on how many children live in each household, Lyons said.

Private sector companies pay 50 percent of the interns' salary and that amount is matched by the city. Public sector employers pay 100 percent.

Participating private companies include the St. Petersburg Times, Florida Power Corp., Barnett Bank and Construction Dynamics Inc. Among the public sector participants are the Pinellas County Health Unit, the city of St. Petersburg and the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services economic services.

Though the program is only a summer commitment for the younger interns, a few of the 20-somethings could be offered full-time jobs, depending on performance and job availability.

"It could certainly have that impact," said Marjorie Stevens, director of program development at the Pinellas Private Industry Council. "There are some of the jobs . . . that could result in a permanent placement at some point and time."

About 800 young people applied, Lyons said.

"There are a tremendous amount of job needs out there," Gilder said. "We will not be able to give all of the kids jobs that want them and need them."

Organizers are hoping for federal grant money to expand the program, Gilder said.

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