Starla Pierce has opened doors for herself since transferring to Citronelle High School as a sophomore.

For the past two summers, she has gained experience through an internship at the Outokumpu stainless steel facility in Calvert. The McIntosh resident and CHS senior will soon decide whether to start college immediately upon graduation, or begin working at the mill and take advantage of its tuition reimbursement program.

“It changed my life,” Pierce said of the Mobile County Public School System’s signature academy program. “The internship basically helped me to do everything I thought I wouldn’t be able to do.”

While a student at CHS, Pierce was able to take advantage of the school’s signature academy for industrial manufacturing. As a result, she has worked in quality control at the mill in various departments for the past two summers. During the experience she said she learned she can “work with adults and do what they do.”

“The experience changed me,” she said of the internship. “My self-esteem skyrocketed.”

Building on successes similar to Pierce’s, the city met with business leaders on Dec. 12 to discuss a new youth employment initiative, which would not only hire interns in city departments but would also help facilitate the signature academy program — as well as the SWEET-P program through the Mobile Housing Board’s nonprofit arm, Mobile Development Enterprises. The Youth Empowered for Success, or YES, program is open to youth aged 16-24.

Helping to connect the businesses and jobs to the city’s youth would be mutually beneficial, Mayor Sandy Stimpson said. He asked business people in attendance to help by hiring at least two interns this summer. In addition, Stimpson said, the city will hire interns in some of the city’s departments. The goal is to get 1,000 youth working this summer, city spokeswoman Laura Byrne confirmed in an email message.

“We believe our young people are a huge untapped resource,” Stimpson said. “We want to figure out how to bring down some of those barriers. We want to say that in the summer we were able to hire more youth than ever before.”

The signature academies are meant to give students the skill set to succeed after high school, said Larry Mouton, MCPSS assistant superintendent of workforce development and career and technical education.

“We’ve made the commitment that if you do what you need to do, we’re going to make sure you have an internship,” he said.

The internships are typically four weeks at 15 hours a week and cost less than $1,000, Mouton said.

The 20-year-old SWEET-P program served 30 student residents last summer, but has helped as many as 100 in a summer, said State Rep. Adline Clarke, MDE vice president.

“We are so proud of this program,” she said. “It helps to break the vicious cycle of generational poverty. It exists, we can tell you.”

The SWEET-P program is eight weeks long and costs a little bit more for businesses than the signature academy program, Clarke said.

Darrell Randle, Mobile Chamber of Commerce vice president for small business development, told the business leaders in attendance that hiring interns could be beneficial on several fronts.

For one, Randle said, hiring interns could cut down on the costs associated with training and retaining good employees. When internships are offered, businesses can ultimately reap the benefits of a skilled workforce. Having successful internship programs can help the community, he said, and help recruit businesses to the area.

Randle added there is also a social benefit to hiring interns through positive publicity.

“I encourage every business that came here … if someone is asking you to participate say ‘yes,’” he said.

Councilman Levon Manzie, who called on the city to develop a similar program, said he supports Stimpson’s efforts to improve youth employment.

“I am appreciative of this administration for being sensitive to the lack of employment opportunities in the communities I represent,” Manzie said. “I believe this will have a transformative effect …”

Despite his support for the internship program, Manzie had called for a city department dedicated to youth services in order to take a “more robust, holistic approach.” His plan would involve mentoring, as well as ensuring youth have a safe place to go when school is out. For instance, he said, he’d like to see all of the city’s community centers open on Saturdays.

“We’ve made one big step,” he said. “I look forward to working with the administration and council moving forward.”

Pierce is not the only student to find success through an internship program. Two employees at Alexander Shunnarah Personal Injury Attorneys started there as interns.

One, Jazmyne Woods, is a junior currently attending Bishop State Community College. She came to the law firm’s Mobile office through the SWEET-P program. Woods serves dual roles, as an assistant to the chief of business development and in marketing, chief administration officer E. Maxine Day James said.

Constance Garner, who came through a MCPSS signature academy, is an administrative intern at the firm. She is a junior at the University of South Alabama, James said.

James said attorneys from the firm mentor students in LeFlore Magnet High School’s pre-law signature academy.

Signature Academy Coordinator Kirsti July referenced Raymond Horace, a graduate of B.C. Rain who participated in the school’s aerospace engineering academy. She said he is currently attending USA but got connected to Airbus through the signature academy program.

“He’s now looking at aerospace,” July said.