By Joseph A. Frick

and Mark Schweiker

Imagine the smiling, eager faces of first graders, gazing with excitement at their teacher to see what they will learn next. Now imagine those same faces 10 years later. Often just as enthusiastic. Perhaps frustrated by the lack of opportunities available to them.

Unfortunately, this picture represents countless young people in Philadelphia's high schools. We know this because thousands of students contact the WorkReady Philadelphia program every year, inquiring about jobs. These young people want to be independent, earn a decent paycheck, and begin a career with a solid future. But the sad truth for many is that opportunities are limited.

It is time for the business community to respond to that eagerness and help these students realize the exciting futures they want - and deserve. Never before has there been such a glaring need in Philadelphia to connect the city's youths with the vibrant economy that surrounds them.

We can begin this work by opening the doors of the region's businesses - from the large corporations to the smaller companies. That is why, as part of our Working Solutions initiative, the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce is encouraging businesses to provide 1,000 paid internships this summer for Philadelphia youths. So far, companies have agreed to provide more than 700.

The six-week internship program, from July through mid-August, costs employers $1,600. It is administered by the Philadelphia Youth Network, which screens and prequalifies interns and arranges for employer interviews before a student is hired.

We're confident that employers will join our efforts and provide 300 more jobs, especially when we tell them about the types of talented and capable interns they will be hiring - interns such as Grant Williams. Williams, a senior at Bok Vocational Technical High School, got a paid internship escorting patients to and from the imaging areas in the radiology department at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Radiology wasn't Williams' first choice, but he quickly learned how valuable that department is to the hospital. He was surprised by how much he enjoyed working in health care. Now he thinks he might like to become a physical therapist someday.

That is the purpose of an internship - to expose young people to real-life work opportunities and better prepare them to be productive citizens and employees. Like Williams, many students uncover hidden interests and talents. Some even begin lifelong careers through these internships.

The chamber's efforts are an integral part of a citywide strategy known as WorkReady Philadelphia, established in 2003 to coordinate existing youth-employment programs and expand the number of opportunities.

Each year, WorkReady programs, administered by Philadelphia Youth Network, place more than 7,000 youths in a variety of summer and year-round employment programs. However, at least 3,000 young people apply for WorkReady slots each year but are turned away because the supply of jobs can't meet the demand.

That number includes more than 400 students who were prequalified for employer-paid internships last summer but languished on a waiting list.

Now is the time for our business community to make a difference. We can jump-start the futures of 1,000 lives by opening the doors of the region's leading employers to Philadelphia youths.

Employers gain, too. Not just in the goodwill they do for their community, but in building their own pool of young talent. A human-resources manager for a medium-size firm said: "Once we have these kids as interns, we don't like to let them go. Rather, we hope they will grow into our industry."

We know we have more than enough business leaders in our region who will commit themselves to offering opportunity to young people. As stakeholders in the growth of this region, business leaders are the right people to lead the initiative.

We strongly urge employers to join us in this endeavor, and we hope we can count on you and others in the business community for your support.