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Building Innovation is a collection of stories by 90.5 fm WESA reporters about the Pittsburgh region focusing on efficient government operation, infrastructure and transportation, innovative practices, energy and environment and neighborhoods and community.

Through The New 'Learn And Earn' Program, Students Gain A Broad Set Of Workplace Skills

It's the last week of the Learn and Earn program, and Anthony Zabiegalski, a producer at Simcoach Games, is prepping his 26 interns to test out a video game they helped build. Over the last six weeks, the interns have worked alongside developers and designers.Local employers desperate to fill upwards of 40,000 jobs have long said that many prospective employees lack skills. So the new Learn and Earn program placed low-income youth into internships with tech companies. The interns spent the summer learning "hard" skills like coding and gaining "soft" skills like arriving at an interview on time and shaking someone’s hand.

In the game they’re play testing, the avatar dodges obstacles, but they aren’t things like hurtling knives, they’re the kind of impediments teenagers face, such as wasting time on Facebook when they should be printing resumes. And they get points for researching a company before a job interview or dressing their avatar professionally.

"I feel like if I go to college and study more about the game industry, I would have the upper hand on most people, " said Dion Baker-Brock, who graduated from high school in the spring.

Learn and Earn, a pilot program of the city, county and Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, placed nearly 2,000 low-income young adults into internships.

Simcoach Games’s staff also benefited. Anthony Zabiegalski said they don’t typically interact with the end user while creating a game.

"That was very funny actually. They did a short write-up about what it means to dress professionally. And in it somebody wrote that you have to look fresher than Steve Harvey — and I thought that line was so funny — we put it in the game," he said.  "So when you do really well and you dress well you actually get that line of feedback — that you looked as fresh or fresher than Steve Harvey."

That contribution came from Dion Baker-Brock.

The interns are paid $8.50 an hour, but most of them have other part-time jobs. Baker-Brock works the night shift at PNC Park, cleaning up at Pirates Games from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Some nights he works, goes home, showers and then, on no sleep, comes to his internship.

"It ain’t nothing," he said.

Throughout the summer, the interns have visited Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, play tested lots of games and provided lots of feedback. For one, the characters in the prototypes were male. The girls were vocal about wanting to see a character that looked like them. When they had to design what a typical professional outfit would look like, some of the interns even made a music video – a spoof on Justin Timberlake’s "Suit and Tie."

The video was produced by Isaac Cowan-Page, a geeked-out — his words — 18-year-old, special effects aficionado from Wilkinsburg. Until this internship, he wasn’t sure how he’d break into this field.

"This is great how you can actually interview some of the employees and see what sort of steps they took," said Cowan-Page."So for me, if I want to go into video gaming or something to do with movies, I can just ask."

So is the program successful? In some ways, it's too soon to tell, but some of the  interns have gotten jobs in fields like catering and retail. As for these interns, their  games will soon be available for free on the Apple App Store and more.

And even if they don’t ultimately end up in a tech job, most agree it’s been a valuable experience. Dion Baker-Brock said he’s enjoyed his gaming internship, but he’s set on becoming an occupational therapist.

When he was 16, he was shot in the back and was told he wouldn’t be able to use his left arm again. Occupational therapists helped him.

"I would rather think of myself being a game developer than an occupational therapist just because I like playing video games growing up. But going through that near-death experience and going through a traumatizing event just made me think bigger than what my needs are," he said.  

Though he hasn’t decided to switch course, he’s taken things away from this internship. At his last interview, he stands up and turns to leave — then he remembers and turns back. "Oh yeah," he says. He holds out his hand for a handshake.

"Nice meeting you."