Hundreds of young people packed into the bleachers of a community college auditorium in Newark on Monday. They were all there for one reason — to start their summer jobs. 

The city’s 2019 summer employment program allows 3,000 Newark youths from the ages of 14 to 24 the opportunity to gain work experience during the summer. The students were selected randomly out of 7,000 applications and will be working 4-hour shifts each day for six weeks. The participants, who were matched with positions according to their interests, will work in industries all over town — from customer service at ShopRite, public relations in Newark City Hall, to patient care at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.

Although the program only lasts six weeks, city officials are hoping it leads to long-term benefits for the participants and Newark. 

“I hope that students get full-time job opportunities [after this], but I really hope that at the end of the day, they walk away being a new person,” youth program coordinator Marsha Armstrong said.

This program is part of a larger nationwide and local effort to increase efforts to prepare students for careers — not just college. Under Superintendent Roger León, the Newark school district plans to revamp  “career academies” that pair high schools with local employers in order to teach job skills to students.

The summer employment program is the city’s approach to the same goal, though it provides students with on-the-ground work experience outside of school. This workforce training comes at nearly no cost to employers — through a public-private partnership between the City of Newark and a number of foundations and private funders, about $3 million has been raised in total to support the program and the students’ paychecks. 

Vocational training isn’t the program’s only goal. The program also teaches participants financial literacy and fiscal responsibility — skills that they’re not necessarily learning in school. Students are paired with youth financial coaches, and program participants are encouraged to open bank accounts to save the money they earn.

This is Tyler Johnson’s third year in the program. Johnson, a rising senior at Bard High School Early College Newark, keeps coming back because each of his experiences has been rewarding.

“This program makes me feel great because it’s keeping a lot of kids out of trouble and helping support their families,” he said. 

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka participated in a version of the program years ago and called it “the best thing” he did as a kid.

“Having a little bit of money was huge,” he said. “They’re going to be excited when they get their first paycheck.”

The program has expanded under Baraka. Since 2015, the number of student participants has tripled and funding has increased. But city officials say they’re not done yet — they hope to enroll 5,000 students in the program next year.

“It should be a priority for the city — the health and welfare of our youth,” Baraka said. 

The program is a way for the city to do just that, and subsequently, spark change.

“To change what’s happening in our city, you have to work on the students,” he said. “We want them to have conversations about their money, not other people’s money.”