Beverly Riddick

U.S. Bank Steps Up: An Interview with Richard Harris about U.S. Bank and STEP-UP Achieve’s youth employment program

August 10, 2017
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By Beverly Riddick, Executive Director

When it comes to efforts to close the skills gap, U.S. Bank and the STEP-UP program are on the leading edge of the curve. Student participants gain corporate experience from an early age to help them get a “step up” the skills ladder.

Richard Harris

I recently had the privilege to speak with Vice President and Director of Campus Relations at U.S. Bank Richard Harris to learn more about the program and how it works at U.S. Bank.

In his role, Harris combines his background in, and his passion for, education by helping students align their skills and interests to career opportunities. His efforts ensure that by the time they graduate, interns’ skills are more directly aligned with those employers seek.

“There may be an achievement gap, but not an aspiration gap.” – Richard Harris

1. What is the STEP-UP program?

STEP-UP Achieve is one of the country’s premiere workforce development programs, serving students in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region. It’s a nonprofit organization that attempts to narrow the workforce skills gap so students will be prepared to obtain their first job – while at the same time, expanding the horizon of what they thought they could originally achieve.

2. Who participates in the program?

The students who participate are from Minneapolis and between 16-21 years old. Last year, 89% were from low-income families, 94% were students of color and 47% were first- or second generation immigrants. It is important to understand that for some, this may be their very first work experience, others may be learning English as a second language and still others may have a disability they’re striving to overcome. That’s why we work closely with managers of our interns, and interns themselves, to make sure the students are set up for success.

3. How did the STEP-UP program get started?

The STEP-UP program was founded by former Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak and U.S. Bank Chairman (then Chairman, President and CEO) Richard Davis in 2004 with the aim to narrow the workforce readiness gap for Minneapolis students. They saw that underserved students typically don’t have an in-road into a steady, well-paying office job – no family working in that world to look to as an example, and no school subject to help them understand the ins and outs of corporate America. STEP-UP fills that gap by partnering with local employers – U.S. Bank was one of the founding partners – to give students their first jobs in the “corporate” world. The program has provided more than 21,000 internships in partnership with the City of Minneapolis and AchieveMpls.

Pictured: Amal Ikar, Maryama Abdi

4. What kind of placements do students get at U.S. Bank?

When people think of banks, they think branches, online banking, maybe a call center. While we do place some students in our branches, our aim is to broaden their understanding of what people do at a bank. We have a social media team, a human resources team, even a person in charge of the art that’s placed in our buildings. The U.S. Bank STEP-UP program finds positions for students all across the bank – in the technology group, human resources and, yes, bank branches. The variety of opportunities make sure that students get work experience in areas that fit their unique skillsets and interests and align with the position requirements.

5. From a logistical standpoint, how does STEP-UP operate?

STEP-UP is operated by Achieve Minneapolis, which provides work-readiness training and helps place students with employers. The eight-hour training, which happens prior to the internship, is infused with insight from local businesses and certified by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce. Interns are taught interviewing skills, workplace communication and etiquette, networking and résumé building, and more skills crucial to success in today’s workplace. The end result is that students are better prepared for their summer jobs and future careers. Following training, students not yet enrolled in college apply and are then matched with local employers. The internship itself takes place over several weeks in the summer; this year’s program began on June 20 and wraps up August 19.

6. How does U.S. Bank ensure the program benefits both the students and the company?

It’s all about connections, communication and planning ahead. At U.S. Bank, our internship program managers reach out to human resources employees and managers, explaining the program and asking them to work with STEP-UP students. Then, we work with the managers to create specific job descriptions for each role. It’s not hard to encourage managers to participate… diversity and inclusion are the foundation of our culture, and these students are part of our future workforce. Helping them prepare to be part of our team is a no-brainer. Thanks to the founders and the people carrying on their work, the STEP-UP program seems to get even more rewarding each year – for us and for the students.

7. What would you say is the biggest challenge the STEP-UP program faces?

The major challenge the program faces is the lack of student tracking on their journey from high school through college to their first job, since students start as young as 14 years old. To address this challenge, Achieve Mpls is currently developing an alumni database.

8. How many students have gone through the program at U.S. Bank?

We’ve provided more than 400 internships since the program started; 50 this summer.

9. What incentives does the program provide to student to encourage them to participate?

STEP-UP truly shows students a different way of life. They get on-the-job experience, which is great for their resumes. But moreover, they get one-on-one coaching with their managers. They get training to understand office culture. They get to meet other employees who work across the bank. Essentially, they’re given a window into career pathways they may never even have considered possible. There may be an achievement gap, but not an aspiration gap.

Pictured: Pajoua Chang, Lucien Justin

One example that comes to mind of the program’s success at U.S. Bank is Vincent. He worked his way through the Step-Up internship program, building relationships with his managers, building skills – and in doing so, discovered a possible career path and got the foundational knowledge he needed to begin making that career path a reality. Through hard work and focus, he was able to get into University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. He was one of the first STEP-UP interns to go through our college internship program, too. We’re excited to see what he does next and are proud to consider him part of our team.

10. Does U.S. Bank have other community targeted programs that focus on skills development?

U.S. Bank employees are incredibly active in the communities where we live and work – so yes, absolutely. One of our largest initiatives focused on skills development is our financial literacy program, Student Union. Student Union is an online financial education training series aimed at high school students that offers scholarship opportunities for those who complete the full training and are bound for college. We also partner with Cool Speak, a national nonprofit, to deliver financial literacy training in a way that’s gamified. Finance is thought of as a pretty dry topic, so by turning the training into a fun game, we’re able to hold students’ interest and teach them these important lessons at the same time. Plus, we offer a five-figure scholarship to one winner who completes all of the sessions.

We also dedicated July as the Community Possible Month of Play – which really turned into the Summer of Play, as we’ve got activities going on from June through September. This campaign is all about getting out with family and friends and enjoying games and activities. Whether we’re talking a walk around the lake, a pickup game of basketball, or an organized volunteer event to clean up a playground, play is a huge factor in building relationships with others and developing skills that will get students through life – teamwork, organization, strategy. You might not think about it this way, but even a game of hide-and-seek can teach a kid a lot about these topics.

If you have further questions or would like more information about the program, please contact Jeremiah Brown, for more information.