24 Jul New Orleans high schoolers connect with emerging biotech, digital jobs

Nola.com

This summer, 17-year-old Destine Breaux learned about the medical industry from a sparkling third-floor office in the BioInnovation Center on Canal Street with a grand view of the Central Business District.

As an intern for Better Day Health, Breaux tracked media coverage of the electronic medical records industry and catalogued articles in a database for the startup company to keep tabs on its market.

To get into that high-tech seat, though, Breaux made it through 60 hours practicing comparatively low-tech skills — public speaking, a firm handshake and ignoring her cell phone during a business lunch, to name a few.

She’s one of 20 high schoolers and recent graduates who tested out a pilot program organized by the city, the New Orleans Business Alliance and the nonprofit EducateNow! to introduce students to the biotech and digital fields and the world of business.

“I do feel myself changing and growing, because I’m learning more about the medical field and what doctors do and what they need to cut back on,” Breaux said.

Melissa Ehlinger, New Orleans Business Alliance senior vice president for strategy and business development, said the program committed to preparing students for the office — and in turn, they asked employers to provide meaningful work experiences.

The 60 hours of so-called “soft skills” training tackled meeting deadlines, dressing professionally, writing emails and mock interviews. The students had a round of real interviews to get placed in an internship.

Other businesses offering internships in the program included Federated Sample, a digital market research company, and LaCell, which operates in the field of stem cell research.

Ehlinger said the program, called Youth Force, is part of a larger goal of connecting high school students to the biotech and digital industries, which opens doors to careers in fields such as software development and biology. When applying for a job or a college program, she said, “They can talk about real life, on-the-job experiences.”

Rand Ragusa, Better Day Health co-founder and senior vice president of business development, said during interviews, he and Breaux connected on her interest in the health care industry and possibly studying physical therapy or nursing. Better Day Health is a medical-record generating system that uses voice-recognition technology.

“She just seemed to convey a real passion for wanting to get into health care,” Ragusa said. “I just thought this could really be an impactful experience for her to learn about some of the problems in health care, so that when she does decide her career path, she’ll have a unique set of skills that maybe other high schoolers don’t have.”

The program was run by San Francisco-based nonprofit Juma Ventures, which focuses on employment, college prep and financial asset building for youth. It cost a total of $67,000.

One-third of that went to students in the form of $1,000 stipends, RTA passes and special equipment for jobs, a spokeswoman said. The other two-thirds went to  Juma and New Orleans Business Alliance for program management.

EducateNow! provided $40,000, Chevron provided $10,000 and the city of New Orleans paid the remainder for student stipends.

Louisiana ranks 14th in the country in occupational skills training and 35th in educational achievement, according to a recent Cowen Institute brief on workforce investment. Nationwide, the unemployment for youth age 16 to 24 is more than 14 percent compared with an overall 6 percent unemployment rate.