Jill Conlon likens the work of youth employment programs to that of an air traffic controller. Staff members do more than gliding young people in for a landing in a brand new job. They help set the course, predict the weather, prevent mid-air collisions.
"It's not just case managing and the GED," says Conlon, vice president of programs at MY TURN, a youth employment agency serving economically and socially disadvantaged youth in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Given the challenges that runaway and homeless youth face, Conlon and other youth employment advocates say, programs must take a comprehensive approach to preparing these young people for employment and finding them jobs.
"Even though they know they need a job, sometimes that's not their priority," says Maggie Driscoll, employment and training director of the Human Resource Councils, a network of social services agencies in Montana that runs both a transitional living program funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) and a Workforce Investment Act-funded youth employment program. Finding shelter or addressing health or family problems often ranks higher on a runaway or homeless youth's to-do list than finding a job, she says.
Once programs have helped young people achieve more stability, getting them on the path to employment is an important step, Driscoll says. "We see it as a priority to get them some work experience and a job so they can maintain some self-sufficiency."
"Once you've gotten a young person to overcome their barriers, they're going to want to move forward," Conlon says. She adds: "Our goal is not to just get kids jobs, but to help them gain careers."
To help youth make the journey from jobless to gainfully employed, youth employment specialists like Driscoll and Conlon follow a number of steps.
Assessment and self awareness
Program staff begin by formally or informally assessing the young person's education and work history. What level of education have they reached? Have they ever successfully held a job? If not, what has prevented them from keeping a job?
MY TURN case managers also observe the young person to gauge his or her interpersonal and communication acumen, Conlon says. Does the youth make eye contact? Does he or she have a positive or negative self-image?
Pinpointing the youth's interests comes next. Driscoll's program uses the Harrington-O'Shea Career Decision-Making System to help young people assess their abilities, values, and interests. Staff at Aunt Martha's Youth Service Center, a FYSB grantee serving counties in northeastern Illinois, pose the questions, "What did you want to be at [age] 7? At 16? What do you want to do now? At 25?" Then they ask youth to fill out worksheets that quiz them about the things they like to do.
Whatever their methods for assessing young people's work readiness and interests, youth employment staff use the information to help the youth create a personal strategic plan.
"[The plans] are highly individualized," Driscoll says. "Some kids are ready to work. Others are far away from that."
Telling young people about the range of options available to them plays an important part in preparing them for careers, youth employment professionals say. Often, youth have limited information about career paths and gravitate toward high-profile professions.
"Young people now want something that's fun and exciting, something that's flexible," says Terry Simmons, program administrator and career coach at Career Builders, a State workforce development intermediary in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a partner in the FYSB-funded Louisiana Positive Youth Development Collaboration Demonstration Project.
Because of the popular television show "CSI," about a group of crime scene investigators, Simmons says, "everybody wants to be a forensic scientist." Conlon explains that many youth can only envision themselves in the careers of people they have interacted with, like doctors or social workers, or someone famous, like Donald Trump or the popular singer Usher. And most young people, Simmons and Conlon say, don't understand the conditions they would encounter in particular professions (like seeing blood) or the skills they would need (like the analytical abilities necessary for business).
"We have to open their eyes to all the other careers out there," Conlon says. For instance, she says, becoming a physician isn't the only option for young people interested in health care. They could choose to become phlebotomists or licensed practical nurses.
In addition to having limited information about the range of professions, many young people are constricted by the environment in which they live, and youth in areas with depressed job markets may have difficulty envisioning a future. That occurs in Metro District 7 in north Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Simmons says. "You can't just walk straight out of the office and knock on some doors," he says, explaining that the corner stores, fast food restaurants, and retail outlets that make up the district's businesses have little to offer young people beyond a minimum wage job.
"It dampens [youths'] enthusiasm about working at all," he says. "They don't see anything in their community, so it's a hard sell to say 'I'm preparing myself for something greater.'"
To battle that pessimism, Simmons taps into youths' interests, encourages them to research career options, and connects them to the wider Baton Rouge business community and to working professionals. "We give them the information they need to make a sound decision," he says, for instance by telling them about the training they will need to succeed in a given profession. Once a young person has identified a career he or she would like to pursue, Simmons introduces them to professionals in the field who can give them an insider's take. "That usually seals the deal," he says, "or we can go down another path."
In Montana, where the job market offers low wages and many people work two jobs to make ends meet, runaway and homeless youth seeking employment compete with adults and college students, Driscoll says. She tries to introduce young people to occupations that are growing in Montana, such as construction and health care.
Sometimes, the career itself is not the hook. "We're dealing with a generation that has music video mentality," Simmons says. "They identify with lifestyle." Career Builders and MY TURN both organize activities in which young people make mock lifestyle decisions, like buying a car or a house, and then learn about a profession of their choice—what kind of education they would need, how much they would make. "Sometimes, they realize their goals don't match their finances," Conlon says. "They might have to live with Mom and Dad to afford that Lexus."
Other strategies for introducing young people to career options include research projects on a given occupation, guest speakers, job shadowing (in which a young person tags along with a working adult for a day or a week), and paid and unpaid internships (more on these below).
In addition, many programs emphasize community service because of its myriad benefits, both related and unrelated to job seeking.
Participating in service projects "shows [youth] the things people get paid to do," says Kyla Williams, division manager for comprehensive services at Aunt Martha's, and allows them to meet a range of working adults. "Sometimes they network with people to create a paying position."
Service also connects young people to their communities. "Getting rid of apathy is a big thing," Simmons says. "It's an empowering thing when they can identify something they want to change in their community and actually do something about it. In a lot of cases, African American youth build resilience and then get out [of their neighborhoods]. Community service makes them feel accountable, so that even if their goal is to move across town, they'll come back and contribute to the community they grew up in."
Exploring entrepreneurship can present an appealing option for some young people, Conlon says. "A lot of these kids have had to be very independent and streetwise," Conlon says, "and I think that kind of lifestyle encourages entrepreneurship."
MY TURN collaborated last summer with the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship on a pilot program teaching entrepreneurial skills to at-risk young people. The young people in the pilot program developed their own business plans, received $20 business loans, bought products wholesale, and then sold them at Boston's South Station.
"Some of the kids realized that it's not for them because it's too risky, but others really want to pursue it," Conlon says. One young man went on to open a landscaping business in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Many programs offer "job readiness" or "job preparation" classes, either in group settings or one-on-one. Young people learn how write a cover letter and résumé, conduct a job search, and network. Trainers also introduce them to other aspects of the work world like proper attire and corporate dos and don'ts. (For more information about teaching young people nontechnical skills, see The Rules of the Game.)
Youth in job readiness class at Larkin Street Youth Services, a FYSB grantee in San Francisco, earn a weekly stipend (with $20 raises in the last 2 weeks of the 3-week training program). Along with standard job-hunting stuff, they work on class projects, such as a PhotoShop poster and personal portfolios. They also learn basic computer skills.
For most youth, achieving education goals, such as graduating high school, obtaining a high school equivalency credential such as the GED, or improving math and reading skills, plays an important role in preparing for employment.
While employability training can help youth put a foot in the door by getting an entry-level job, young people need more training for a career, Conlon says. "Minimum wage is not going to break the cycle of poverty," she says.
Vocational or technical training is the next step for some youth. "Otherwise their strategic plan will just be a binder that collects dust," Simmons says. Job-related training programs and other post-secondary education help young people gain more skills and become more marketable, Conlon says. "We need to develop skills in these young people," she says.
Simmons lets young people know that taking the entrance exam at the local community college allows them to take up to 9 credit hours of classes without a high school diploma if they score high enough. By trying out culinary arts or welding classes, they often become more motivated to get the high school diploma or GED credential they need to continue.
But all training is not equal. For instance, in a city or town with few health care opportunities, Conlon says, training young people for health jobs doesn't make sense, unless young people are willing to relocate. For that reason, MY TURN works with businesses to identify employment trends and create training programs that match the jobs available in a particular community.
This kind of partnership offers benefits for businesses as well as for youth. Simmons and Career Builders have worked with Louisiana companies to create training opportunities and scholarships so that more young people will enter the processing technology field; process operators, or PTECs, control and monitor the systems that run chemical plants. As the third largest producer of chemicals in the United States, Louisiana had forecast a worker shortage of 5,000 to 10,000 over 5 to 10 years, Simmons says. With the automation of plants, process operators need more training now than they did in the past.
"Young people thought that it was a dead end job that required no additional education beyond high school," Simmons says. "Somebody had to get out in the community and dispel those myths." Since 2001, there has been a 71 percent increase in student enrollment in PTEC programs at Louisiana community and technical colleges.
Getting a job
Once young people have gotten the amount of training they need—whether it's simply completing work readiness training, finishing high school, earning a GED credential, or getting advanced training—finding a job is the next step. How that happens depends on the young person. Some young people move into internships and apprenticeships, which can provide training and a taste of what the job is like.
At Larkin Street's Institute for HIRE Learning, young people choose a career track, such as culinary arts, veterinary care, multimedia, or nonprofit social services, and are placed in a paid internship. (Larkin Street, rather than the employers, pays for youths' stipends.) Working 20 hours a week for 3 months, young people must save 30 percent of their $8-an-hour wage. Young people also attend weekly one-on-one counseling and workshops on topics such as self care, money management, soft-skill development, long-term planning, and advanced job searching.
Andrew Niklaus, director of education and employment services, says that 70 percent of Institute for HIRE Learning alumni get a job with the internship employer or at another company or go on to postsecondary education.
Larkin Street also supports the job searches of young people who go straight from job readiness training into employment. Job counselors accompany young people as they hit the pavement in San Francisco neighborhoods, looking for vacancies and getting job applications. Other times, counselors will "job carve" for a young person who needs help, going to an employer and negotiating a position created specifically for that young person's strengths and weaknesses.
To help youth find jobs, Aunt Martha's has agreements with local businesses, including Jiffy Lube, a gas station, Wal-Mart, Applebee's restaurant, and the fast food chain Chipotle. "We tell employers, 'We will work with youth … and work to ensure they become good employees for you,'" Williams says. In return, the agency gives the companies business, using them as vendors. Using this community approach, Williams says, "we've easily been able to employ our kids."
And when a young person gets a job offer and goes off to work, Niklaus says, "it feels good to them. Everything clicks."
Job retention and followup
But landing a job is not the end of the struggle for runaway and homeless youth. Youth employment programs stress the need to follow up, both with young people and with employers. That way, potential conflicts can be nipped in the bud, Conlon says, "so the kid doesn't just walk off, or the employer doesn't just fire them after they're late 2 days in a row."
Larkin Street staff check in with employers regularly, Niklaus says; how often depends on the needs of the youth. If young people are also in Larkin's housing program, HIRE UP staff members check in with the case manager to ferret out issues that might affect their job performance. The program also gives youth incentives to stick with a job, promising a lunch date at the end of month 1, another incentive, such as a movie pass, at the end of month 2, and so on. After 6 months, the young person might receive a $50 gift certificate.
Driscoll's transitional living program helps young people budget and plan, and then backs away incrementally, she says. "Once they're stable, the counselor backs off a bit, calls less often, gives less help with rent—we help with rent until they're stable." Other programs encourage young people to make goals of saving up for things they want.
Followup can also mean referring young people to other services, like health care, or just listening when they drop by, Driscoll says.
In addition to providing adult support, some programs nudge youth toward relying on each other. MY TURN youth meet in a weekly or biweekly "job club," where they eat free pizza and talk about job-related issues and ways to overcome them. When problems arise on the job, "often youth point the finger at their boss," Conlon says. Job club teaches them to talk about their problems with peers and resolve issues amicably.
All of this persistence gives young people the encouragement they need to stick with it. "Staying in a job for 6 months, if you've been on the streets, is a huge accomplishment," Niklaus says.