When Youth Job Training is Job 1

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Chances are, if you’re not old enough to vote, you’re not pulling in a paycheck. Today’s teens face the most dismal job market in 56 years, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reporting an annual average employment rate of 35 percent among 16- to 19-year-olds last year.

In an increasingly competitive job market, positions that have traditionally been reserved for youth are snapped up by college-educated adults, immigrants, or older workers who probably would retire if they could afford to.

“When you’re 18 with a GED and six months of work experience, that’s a very tight market,” says Andrew Niklaus, director of education and employment services at Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco.

For some teens, the barriers to employment are particularly high. Juvenile offenders, runaways, foster youth and youth with disabilities often have the most difficulty finding and maintaining employment.

“You think about young people who have additional barriers to employment, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that they’ll struggle,” says Seth Turner, senior director for public policy at the Association for Career and Technical Education. That is, “unless they have access to a program that exposes them to some caring adult, helps to stabilize them and gives them direction to put them back on the road to recovery.”

Job training professionals say the problem often starts at school.

“Education is the place where many of our people have been told ‘you can’t do it, you’re never going to do it, you’re stupid,’ ” Niklaus says. Yet “many of our young people have had legitimate barriers to learning.”

Larkin Street’s HIRE UP program serves foster youth born to parents who used crack, as well as teens with mental health and substance abuse problems.

Teens who’ve been in the juvenile justice system – the population served by New York-based Career Exploration Project – face the task of piecing together an education disrupted by incarceration.

“Most of the kids we work with, because of their low-income background, have never received a caring education,” says Andrew Fenwick, one of the project’s coordinators. He says many of the youth struggle with the stigma of gang involvement, past drug abuse and racial prejudice.

David Brown, former executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, says racial prejudice remains a major employment barrier. “There is still pervasive discrimination,” Brown says.

According to the D.C.-based American Youth Policy Forum, less than 7 percent of African-American male high school students in low-income households were employed last year, compared with a 23 percent employment rate among low-income white male high schoolers.

Youth served by the Cleveland-based Job Link program struggle with disabilities that often make it difficult to stay employed. According to a 2003 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, a teen with a disability who is between the ages of 16 and 20 is almost two times as likely to be unemployed as employed.

Helping at-risk youth in their uphill battle for work can involve everything from life-skills and vocational training to on-the-job experience. Turner says the key to a successful program is the ability to stay versatile.

“The trend is, we need a highly skilled work force,” he says. “The economy is always changing, and we need a work force that is adaptable.”

Job shadowing and internships are prevalent tools of job training programs. They are preceded by workshops to improve youths’ career readiness, and are often supplemented by comprehensive services to address medical, social, family and environmental obstacles.

Many job training programs report that funding has become more scarce in recent years. Funding from the U.S. Department of Labor through the Workforce Investment Act is declining, going from $1 billion in 2003 to $986 million in 2005.

The program most associated with highlighting effective efforts is PEPNet – the Promising and Effective Practices Network (www.nyec.org). The National Youth Employment Coalition created the PEPNet system to improve the quality of programs that provide young people with work and educational opportunities that ease the transition to adulthood.

The annual PEPNet Awards recognize organizations for providing teens with skills for the working world. The following organizations have won PEPNet awards.

Job Link
Linking Employment, Abilities and Potential
Cleveland, Ohio
(216) 696-2716, www.leapinfo.org

The Approach: A three-year career education program for high school youth with disabilities, most of them developmental. The program spans from sophomore through senior years, providing small-group meetings and instruction, support services and summer jobs. Much of the program is carried out in school.

During the first year, program coordinators meet with the youths twice a week in small groups to focus on access to support services, work skills training, career exploration and use of public resources.

“They very much serve as mentors,” says Program Director Sandra Carlson. “They develop a rapport.”

During meetings with their coordinators, students discuss their relationships with their families, friends and communities, their employment preparation and their plans for the future. Carlson stresses that there is no curriculum.

“What happens during meetings is individualized, based on the group and their level of functioning,” she says. Coordinators engage the youths in career exploration through role-playing, interactive activities, videotapes, community outings and hands-on learning.

Job Link connects youths with internships tailored to their interests and abilities. Many participants work at the local Veterans Affairs medical centers, performing such tasks as keeping track of medical records and staffing the retail store, cafeteria and mailroom.

In the 10-week summer work program, participants work three days each week, accompanied by Job Link coordinators. “It’s an opportunity to make mistakes and not get fired,” Carlson says.

Participants eventually prepare for the work force with mock interviews and vocational profile development. Job Link also works with them on keeping jobs.

“Once our students graduate, the schools are finished with them. We continue to work them until they meet career goals,” Carlson says.

History and Organization: Job Link was launched in 1994 as a pilot program in a Cleveland high school, after a troubling rise in unemployment rates among youth with disabilities, according to a 2001 PEPNet report. It was started by its first executive director, the late Doris Brennan, and its current executive director, Melanie Hogan. Job Link now serves six high schools in Cleveland.

Job Link is one of six programs operated by Linking Employment, Abilities, and Potential (LEAP), a nonprofit that serves people with disabilities.

Youth Served: Most participants have developmental disabilities, according to Carlson. Those include mental retardation, autism spectrum disorders, deafness and hearing loss.

Participants are identified by vocational evaluators, work-study coordinators and teachers during their freshman year of high school. The program serves about 100 students each year, 75 of whom are still in school. The others have graduated and are receiving services through employment specialists.

Staff: Carlson, the program director, is joined by four program coordinators and two employment specialists.

Funding: Job Link’s $500,000 annual budget is funded by the United Way of Greater Cleveland, the U.S. Department of Labor (through the Workforce Investment Act), the Cuyahoga County Board of Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, and LEAP, among others.

Job Link is provided at no cost to the school or the youths.

Measuring Impact: Job Link reports that 84 percent of its graduates from 1994 through 2004 were in jobs, job training or further education. In comparison, a 2004 Harris poll found that the national rate of employment among working-age people with disabilities was 35 percent.

Career Exploration Project Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services
New York, N.Y.
(212) 732-0076, www.CASES.org

The Approach: An employment training program for adjudicated youth. Instead of doing time, teens get employment readiness training and learn about careers.

“We address the hopelessness of their situation by giving them what they would want,” says Senior Coordinator Andrew Fenwick. “No kid comes in and says, ‘I want to be a crack dealer.’ ”

The project offers internships at law firms, record companies, television studios and doctors’ offices.

The program begins with a month-long employment readiness session that emphasizes positive work skills, anger management, team-building and job search skills.

Those who complete the training interview for internships at local business and nonprofits. The interns work 16 hours a week for three months, earning weekly stipends of $100. The youths must stay in school while they work.

“One of the main goals is linking these kids to resources they usually don’t come in contact with because of poorly administered or disrupted educations,” Fenwick says via e-mail. “And re-linking kids to their educations, by enticement of the internship, with school as a requirement, is a big, big central motive for what we do.”

The internship is the best motivator of all. “We’ll give you your dream job,” Fenwick says, “but you’re going to have to really dedicate yourself.”

History: The project started in 1997 for teenage felony offenders in New York City’s Court Employment Project, which provides alternatives to incarceration. The project is a division of CASES (Center for Alternative Sentencing and Employment Services), which was founded in 1989 by the Court Employment Project and the Vera Institute of Justice.

Youth Served: The program serves eight groups of 15 youth (ages 15 to 20) each year. Most are males from low-income families. Sixty-eight percent are African-American, and 31 percent are Latino.

Participants are drawn from applicants in CASES’ Court Employment Project. Most of the crimes they’ve committed are felony drug sales, felony robberies, gun possession and burglaries. Applicants submit two essays and go through interviews to gauge their motivation and readiness for job training.

Staff: Sonja Okun, the project’s founder, manages the program with three project coordinators.

Funding: The program’s budget ranges from $150,000 to $250,000 a year. Funders include the Robin Hood and Prospect Hill foundations. CASES is funded by the city and the state.

“There’s never enough money,” Fenwick says. “I currently can’t buy the kids professional clothing, and I’d love to.”

Indicators of Success: The project won PEPNet awards in 1999 and 2003. PEPNet cited findings from 2002 that showed that 50 percent of the graduates were working and 81 percent had pursued further education.

According to a 1999 study by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, 78 percent of the state’s juvenile offenders offend again. The Career Exploration Project estimates that, based on its contact with alumni, less than 10 percent of those who’ve completed the program have re-offended.

Larkin Street Youth Services
San Francisco, Calif.
(415) 673-0911, www.larkinstreetyouth.org

The Approach: Through temporary employment, job training and educational services, HIRE UP takes homeless and runaway teens off the streets and prepares them for careers.

The objective is “to develop a script, a set of skills, that will allow them to deal with the issues that are preventing them from being self-sufficient,” says Andrew Niklaus, director of education and employment services at Larkin Street Youth, HIRE UP’s parent program.

The first phase of the program, called HIRE Ground, provides teens with temporary jobs, where they earn $6 an hour for tasks such as cleaning offices and stuffing envelopes. They also get short-term housing, medical and psychosocial assessments, and help in attaining work permits.

Most participants receive other services at Larkin Street. “We’re part of a larger continuum of services,” Niklaus says. Larkin Street employs a holistic approach that extends to the youths’ personal lives, mental health and issues such as substance abuse.

The second phase offers comprehensive employment development training and educational services. It consists of these three components: HIRE Opportunities, a three-week program, provides 45 hours of training and issues a job readiness certificate; Wire Up, a 45-hour course on computer training and Web design skills, teaches working skills for the office; and HIRE Education helps youth meet such goals as earning a GED, learning English and enrolling in college.

HIRE UP also emphasizes what Niklaus calls “soft skills.”

“Hard skills are important, but creating opportunities for yourself by being on time, acting professional, asking good questions – these are things that our young people haven’t been taught,” he says.

The final phase, HIRE Bucks, helps those who’ve completed the job readiness certification program find full-time, career-track jobs. HIRE UP provides training in culinary arts, digital audio recording, animal care and nonprofit human services.

History and Organization: Larkin Street was founded in 1984 to steer homeless youth away from prostitution, drug-dealing and theft. HIRE UP was launched in 1998 with a stated mission “to provide homeless and runaway youth with an educational foundation and marketable skill set that will greatly increase their chances of progressing into an independent, productive adulthood.”

Youth Served: HIRE UP served 583 youth during its last fiscal year. HIRE UP is open to Larkin Street’s 12- to 24-year-olds, but Niklaus says most participants are 18 or 19.

About 60 percent of HIRE UP participants are male. Larkin Street and HIRE UP serve a large homosexual population, with 14 percent reporting same-sex orientation and 14 percent identifying themselves as bisexual. HIRE UP’s typical ethnic breakdown is nearly 30 percent African-American, 40 percent Caucasian and 15 percent Latino.

Staff: The 12-member HIRE UP staff includes three managers who oversee specific components of the program.

Funding: HIRE UP has a $900,000 annual budget, while Larkin Street’s budget is $9 million. Most HIRE UP funds come from private donations, according to Larkin Street. Institutional funders include The Gap Foundation, and the Walter S. Johnson and Lurie foundations.

Measuring Success: HIRE UP reports finding employment for 90 youths last year at an average wage of $9.60 an hour. It says 180 youths completed the HIRE Ground temporary jobs program.

“With the population that we’re working with, success comes in a wide variety,” Niklaus says. For some HIRE UP participants, showing up for work represents a new level of responsibility. “They’ve actually seen that they can show up to work from 8 to 4,” he says. “That is a huge accomplishment.”

Our Piece of the Pie
Hartford, Conn.
(860) 296-5068, www.scservices.org

The Approach: Provides youth in Hartford with case management, employment, education and support services. The organization uses six actual small businesses, along with constant adult and peer mentoring, to help youth develop career skills and improve their grades.

“We learned that having a healthy connection with an adult makes all the difference,” says Donna Cathey, director of experiential learning for Our Piece of the Pie (OPP).

Each youth works with a youth development specialist, whose role is to “navigate and chart the youth journey,” Cathey says. The specialist helps the youth create career and education plans, identify barriers to success and connect to support services and community resources.

Then, during the 10-week “business incubator” cycle, job readiness and entrepreneurial skills are integrated into those sessions, Cathey says.

Central to OPP are the youth businesses it operates: Crunch Time Youth, a music recording studio; Echoes from the Street, a youth newspaper; Junior Arts Makers, a fine arts and fashion program; City Scan, a youth advocacy and social justice program; Youth Chore, a cleaning service for elderly people; and River Wrights Boat Builders, which teaches light carpentry skills.

During the school year, participants meet for these jobs three days a week for two hours each day. They receive a $50 participation stipend every two weeks.

Although the businesses are designed to raise some revenue, OPP focuses more on job training than on making money. “The main goal is that they know how to give a handshake, do an interview – those employability skills that will make them successful,” Cathey says.

The program also aims to build self-esteem and promote business etiquette, entrepreneurship, career exploration and college exploration.

Throughout the youth business program, participants are guided by OPP alumni and adults from the community.
OPP’s Employment Services Team helps youth polish interview skills and review references and applications. OPP’s Young Professionals Academy connects teens with internship and job shadowing opportunities.

History and Organization: The agency was founded in Hartford in 1995 as Southend Community Services. In 2000, OPP collaborated with the Connecticut Department of Children and Families (DCF) and the Connecticut Department of Labor to implement its model in Bridgeport and Bristol, Conn. The agency changed its name to Our Piece of the Pie when, working with the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, it narrowed its focus to youth development.

Youth Served: Our Piece of the Pie projects that it will have served 1,000 Hartford youths (ages 14 to 24) in its 2005-06 fiscal year, including youth from foster care, probation and parole.

Staff: OPP has 100 employees.

Funding: The 2005 budget was $4.8 million. Supporters include the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, United Way of the Capital Area, the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the Hampshire Foundation. The program also receives funding from state and federal agencies, such as the Connecticut DCF.

Measuring Impact: In 2004, the OPP Employment Services Team completed 277 youth job placements (of 30 days and longer) that paid wages of at least $7.10 an hour. Since the start of OPP’s College Planning/Retention services four years ago, OPP has helped 274 youth enter college to obtain a two- or four-year degree.