FORT POLK, La. -- Experiencing the awkward stages between childhood and adulthood can be difficult. Responsibility and focus grow, bodies change, and the future begins to rush forward at frightening speeds. One of the more difficult decisions a youth faces is what career path to take.

The first step is finding a job and getting some work experience. But how do you get experience, but that's easier said than done. One of the first things you're asked in an interview is, "What kind of experience do you have'" If you've never had a job, then you don't have a lot of experience. It's like the classic chicken vs. egg conundrum. Which comes first'

Fort Polk's Child, Youth and School Services, under the auspices of the Directorate of Family Morale, Welfare and Recreation, have an answer -- experience in the form of apprenticeships on post. The name of this student-mentor collaboration is the "HIRED! Apprenticeship Program."
The program is for youth ages 15-18 who want to do more with their time than play video games and text. Participants take an active role in improving their future chances of landing a job in competitive markets by dipping their toes in the installation workforce and discovering possible career choices.

"These kids are amazing and the program is helping to capture our youth's resources for tomorrow," said Loretta McGowan, workforce preparation specialist and "HIRED!" coordinator for CYSS.

She said HIRED! is a pilot program that was offered to 19 installations, including Fort Polk, by the Department of the Army. "We are pretty lucky. If I had to guess why we were chosen, I would think it's because we are growing," said McGowan.

She's impressed by how the program's caught on. "The installation has been so cooperative. Many places have already signed up to be part of the program. We've got the ball rolling and things are moving fast," she said.

McGowan and the first few applicants (15 so far) are getting the particulars of the program out to the community. "Right now, we are basically getting information out through word of mouth," said McGowan.

One of the first teens interested in HIRED! was Larikcus Roebuck, 16. He said one of his main reasons for joining was because he wanted to do something positive in his life.
"HIRED! allows me to participate in fields that I want to work in when I grow up. This program will give me opportunities to get people interested in me. It will also give me experience in the jobs that I want to do," he said.

To get involved, the first step is to fill out an application to see if you are eligible. Then you'll appear before an interview panel. If you pass muster, you'll prepare for actual worksite interaction through several apprentice-training requirements that teach about workforce readiness, careers, money and more. Once the prerequisites have been met, members can be placed in an apprenticeship.

Many of the teens that walk into CYSS have no idea what they want to do as far as a career. So, look at what's available, take a survey and make some choices. Exploring these opportunities now offers a clearer vision of the future. "I think it's going to be a very good experience. This program could change lives," said Shavonnah Smith, 16, another HIRED! alumnus.

Apprentices must complete six 12-week internships over three years. McGowan said that breakes down to 15 hours per week of training or working. "The kids work after school at the place of business. They learn every gamut of the job they are interning for," said McGowan.
Once the youth chooses an internship, they have to stick with it for the entire 12 weeks. "They can't switch in those 12 weeks. There are rules that must be followed. For instance, I'm going to come in and make sure they are wearing the right clothes, that the employer is treating them right, they understand what they're doing and that they actually have an input into what's going on," said McGowan.

These and other rules are part of a Memorandum of Agreement that both the intern and employer sign. The MOA defines the goals of the partnership in clear terms. The mentor signs the MOA, but would have someone else sign in case they are sick or something comes up. That way, interns have someone to report to for accountability. In the end, the partnership gives the youth something as close to real job experience as possible.

McGowan has an adult version of HIRED! classes for mentors to attend so that they can learn what is expected of them and how to best teach the interns. "I have characteristics training for the adults, so they know how to work with youth ages 15-18," said McGowan.
One thing employers must do is track youth attendance. "They turn that in to me at the end of the week. It has to have the intern's signature, the mentor's signature and mine," said McGowan.

Wheelock Bayou Fitness Center is one post employer. Jose Cruz Laporte, Wheelock director, said Wheelock is proud to be the first sponsor for the HIRED! program. "When I was in Germany, I was in youth services. I enjoy working with and teaching kids. That's where my roots are," said Cruz Laporte.
He said HIRED! interns will work at the front counter issuing and cleaning equipment and will always have a member of the staff there to supervise and teach.

Anthony Dye, 18, will be the first member of Hired! to be placed in a worksite as an apprentice. "I've been associated with sports all my life, so I'll be the first intern to work at Wheelock," said Dye. As for his other intern choices, he said he was open for anything.

Another Wheelock apprentice is Samantha Jones, 15. She has already volunteered at Wheelock and knows the ropes. "I was a kid who had nothing to do with my time. That's how I started volunteering at Wheelock. If I could, I'd be here all day instead of at school. This is my first choice for the HIRED! program, but if I try anything else I think I would like to try working with kids," said Jones.

Participation in the program can lead to college credits. Because the project is new, it's unsure how many credits will be earned. Once youth graduate, the credits are transferable to any college. "That helped convince me. Right now, I really don't know what I want to do, so this program might help me and I get credits for doing it," said Meleke Cotton, 15.
McGowan and youth are working on a web site about the program. It's expected to be complete in August. Watch the Guardian for updates. For more information call 531-6936.