Can teen jobs be meaningful?

This summer, the Youth Apprenticeship Project (YAP) offered hands-on learning for teens in the West Side neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn., on finding and making work meaningful, and exploring work and education options after high school.

YAP at the Minnesota State Senate

Qays Ahmed, a 2008 graduate of Humboldt High School, apprenticed with committee administrator Laura Blubaugh in Senator John Marty’s office at the Minnesota State Capitol. “I attended committee meetings – a lot of them – and did research to support the health care legislation Senator Marty is proposing," says Ahmed. He also did research on billboards, and learned to work with computer graphics and office equipment.

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“Another important [aspect of] this work is relationship building – learning how to have conversations with people," says Blubaugh. “Qays sat at the table with senators and representatives and their aides. He learned how to introduce himself articulately. You have to look them in the eye and tell them who you are and why you’re here. These are very important skills."

Over a period of 10 weeks, Qays and two dozen other young people ages 14 to 19 worked with a mentor in (mostly) neighborhood-based businesses and nonprofit organizations. In addition to doing paid work 25 hours a week, they met weekly with other apprentices and adult coaches to reflect on their work experiences and to integrate those experiences with discussion of a variety of topics including post-secondary education, career options, personal finance, and how they connect to the neighborhood, both personally and through their work.

That process of reflection and connection to place are just part of what makes this program unique. Apprentices also serve a visible role in the community and are positive role models for younger children.

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“I was at Baker Community Center, where I helped kids with lunches and recreational activities. I learned how to manage my money, skills of working, and how to stay consistent and focused. I met a lot of kids – learning how to deal with them was important. I learned you don’t have to be so aggressive with them. I also learned to think about my future options." -- Taijon Ferrell

YAP at Youth Farm

Mai Ngia Xiong holds the distinction of one of longest participating members of the West Side Youth Farm. “I remember we dug the first garden at the original site on my birthday 10 years ago," says Xiong. “A lot of things have changed since then."

One of the changes is a new curriculum designed to teach young children about gardening and nutrition. As an apprentice, Xiong helped pilot this teaching tool. “I had to learn how to teach things like composting, proper watering and soil conditions, plant care, and nutrition," she says. “Kids aren’t really interested in nutrition until they get something good to eat. I learned we can teach a lot from our little garden."

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Another of Xiong’s responsibilities was overseeing a local community garden. As they gain experience, high school aged youth farmers like Xiong become part of the lead staff, working as a team to plan and oversee the activities of Youth Farm. (Mai Ngia Xiong, left, and her mentor Amanda Stoelb.)

“We teach lots of things related to organic gardening, nutrition and food systems," explains Amanda Stoelb, a YAP mentor and director of the West Side Farm and Market Project, “but we also help children make connections to the people and places in their neighborhood."

For Xiong, one the most important outcomes of this summer’s experience is her intent to explore how she might work with children in other settings.

Youth apprentices were encouraged to see their work in a broader, civic context, and their mentors were too. We've written before on this blog about "citizen professionals." Helping young people develop and use their skills and talents is another example of how professionals can make a "civic contribution" while serving the interest of their organization in building a strong local workforce. (Read about "citizen naturalist" Neil Cunningham's work with youth apprentice Chang Xiong)

YAP is co-sponsored by the Neighborhood Learning Community (through the Center for Democracy and Citizenship) and the City of Saint Paul’s Youth Job Corps.

Content for this post came from interviews conducted by Nan Kari, a founder of the Neighborhood Learning Community.


Teen jobs can be incredibly meaningful, it provides valuable social skills, builds a strong work ethic teaching one of life’s lessons of working hard to succeed and prosper. It can also build self esteem through self worth.

Having a job as a teen or at the very least volunteering on a regular basis is an incredibly important part of developing as a person and becoming a contributing member of society.

Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs