The Curry County Board of Commissioners said they could support a Youth Pathways Partnership that provides internships to high school students to introduce them to the world of business in hopes of them developing a viable career.

Gene Merrill of the Illinois Valley has been working with youth for 20 years and created the program with the state departments of Education and Labor and Industries. He noted that youth here, as in Josephine County, often leave the area in pursuit of jobs, and such a program has enabled some to stay, learn a trade — and create a more vibrant community.

“It’s a completely different animal than anything out there,” he told the board Wednesday morning. “It saddens me to see the community and educational institutions are separate from each other. If we don’t work together, we aren’t going to create any change in the lives of our youth.”

Business owners benefit, as well.

“They didn’t realize they’d look at it as important to their outcomes,” Merrill said. “As a business owner, the short-time things (such as job shadowing) are absolutely fantastic, but the key component that’s missing is the actual experience in the day-to-day workings of the business. Skills that make really good students translate into making really good employees.”

He is currently working with two school districts and county commissioners there, the cities of Grants Pass and Cave Junction and the chambers of commerce.

“Rural communities are faced with some of these challenges,” he said. “Businesses are struggling to find quality employees, and youth feel they have to move to find any opportunities.”

Participants aren’t merely introduced to new fields but learn “soft skills” such as reliability, collaboration, communication, interpersonal skills and workplace safety.

“They graduate high school with confidence, a belief they can go further, that they’re not trapped in cycles of poverty,” Merill said. “We’re giving youth a leg up they’ve never been able to access before. And by doing that, we’re creating community success.”

He cited a 2014 state study that called youth “endangered,” as they don’t have access to the labor markets previous generations did.

Starting a program here would cost about $77,000; he has secured grants with the Ford Family Foundation to do so in his area.

The only thing needed in Curry County would be a business liaison and an advisory board.

“The Ford Family Foundation thought we wouldn’t be able to roll the program along this fast,” Merrill said. “Businesses and industries are absolutely desperate. We’ve placed 300 students.”

Merrill said 27 percent of high school graduates in Oregon get a post-secondary credential of some sort, and that number plummets to 12 percent among poor students. Additionally, every $1,000 in student debt carried results in a 1.8 percent decrease in the likelihood someone will be able to purchase a home.

He said 50 percent of those who enroll at Southwestern Oregon Community College are also hard-pressed to meet both living and school expenses, making the program a viable option while they are in high school.

“The working class and first generation students rely on an institutional structure for bettering their lives,” Merrill said. “It’s important for this to be part of the education process. We weren’t creating a program; we were creating a culture change. It’s up to us to make sure it occurs.”