Training Is Key in Seeking Partners for Summer Jobs Programs

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Faced with the reality of no federal funding for summer job programs this year, workforce board directors are focusing on strategies to engage local businesses in job programs – and advocating more federal and state support in future years.

 At the National Association of Workforce Boards meeting in Washington this week, new strategies for summer jobs program sustainability was the focus of a panel discussion led by National Youth Employment Coalition Executive Director Mala Thakur.  

“The goal here is to take the partners that we’ve developed and turn that into an unsubsidized summer youth employment program,” said Jim Boucher, who as director of youth services for Hartford’s Capital Workforce Partners tapped into federal Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) funding for last summer’s program.

The fact that local businesses are capable of providing internships or paid jobs to the area’s youth – after training from their local workforce investment board – was a given for those attending the session. It was the manner in which to engage these potential employers that sparked the most interest from the attendees.

Senior vice president of Goodwill Industries John Collins made numerous suggestions, emphasizing that  workforce boards need  to stop dwelling on barriers to employment and focus instead on turning their area’s youth into qualified candidates. “Unless you can say we’re working on skill levels” when reaching out to local businesses “I think you’re talking in circles for a while,” Collins told the session.

Others echoed the need for boards to design a successful communications campaign to reach out to employers. Margie de Ruyter, director of youth programs at the San Diego Workforce Partnership, shared the exact pitch she makes to local businesses and chambers of commerce to encourage them to provide summer jobs for San Diego County youth. “I think businesses do care; it’s how you engage them,” de Ruyter said.

De Ruyter advised the group to:

*  Inform businesses about the Work Opportunity Tax Credit they would receive from the U.S. Department of Labor for providing jobs to low-income youth.

*  Create a list of frequently asked questions in order to dispel myths that are prevalent in the private sector about hiring summer jobs eligible youth.

*  Explain that the board provides work-readiness training before participants start the job. She said it allays businesses’ concerns about hiring youths with behavioral problems.

Collins told the group to accentuate the various skills training that workforce board provide. “We never use the term soft skills; it’s essential employability skills,” Collins said.

Boucher and Thakur offered ways to garner local support.

Boucher, a member of the Hartford city council, said he got in contact early with his city’s newly elected mayor to ensure summer jobs was a priority, and leveraged that relationship into a meeting with the local chamber of commerce. He also said that by reaching out to workforce boards in neighboring states he was able to share items with New York and Massachusetts that gave him good ideas for advocating state funding.  

As for the actual content of his pitch for summer jobs funding to politicians, Boucher is a proponent of pointing to studies showing reduced crime rates in areas that have robust summer youth employment programs. De Ruyter cautioned against scaring off business leaders with too much talk of crime, noting that they might be more amenable to economic-driven approaches.

“In California we found the most effective advocates were the youths themselves,” said Jennifer Mitchell of the California Workforce Association.  She told of taking a summer jobs participant to testify before the state legislature in Sacramento. Though the bill was ultimately unsuccessful, she said she believes the youth’s input brought in added bipartisan support. Mitchell also said she’s also had youth participants send postcards to politicians, informing them the money the youths received from summer jobs was used to help cover basic family expenses.

Despite their appeals and strategies, de Ruyter and Boucher said they will serve no more than half the number of youth they had in their summer programs last year.

And as the discussion moved to Capitol Hill, the frustration in the room was apparent. Thakur said she has heard no word from the House or Senate on whether the Workforce Investment Act would even be considered for reauthorization in the 112th Congress, and added that there are only a “handful” of summer jobs champions on the Hill. 

“I think [politicians] have a fair sense of what’s going on, but we need to be graphic and clear. We need to be tedious with them,” Boucher said. “The numbers projected are almost dismal and frightening.”