Year Up Bay Area trains low-income youth for high-paying jobs in a variety of sectors. Its success stems from high standards and a strong system of support. This story is part of a series highlighting 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees – innovative, scalable programs that place low-income youth on a path to college and career success. The Fund is led by the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance.
When Peter Ortiz, 26, heard about Year Up Bay Area almost three years ago, he thought it was too good to be true.
With locations in 16 cities across the country, the year-long program trains low-income youth without college degrees for high-paying jobs in the technology, healthcare and financial services sectors. For six months, students attend Year Up full-time, learning skills like business communications and the basics of coding. Not only is the training free, but students earn a weekly stipend to attend.
After the training, Year Up Bay Area matches students with six-month paid internships at companies like LinkedIn, Salesforce, eBay and Facebook. Ninety-three percent of Year Up Bay Area’s most recent graduating class was employed or enrolled in college full-time within four months of graduation, earning an average salary of $21 an hour.
“I thought, 'Why are they doing this?'” Ortiz said.
He had reason to be skeptical. He grew up on the east side of San Jose, California, raised by a single mom, surrounded by violence. “[It’s the] same community where Cesar Chavez grew up. He coined it, sal si puedes, which means ‘Get out if you can,’” Ortiz said.
After high school, Ortiz enrolled in community college, but he had to get a full-time job to help support his family at home. Soon, the demands of balancing work, being a college student, and supporting his family became too much, forcing him to drop out. So he started working full-time as a janitor, bussing tables, drinking and fighting so much that he says he was a regular in the emergency room. On top of that, he remained heavily involved with gang activity.
At 23, Ortiz knew he wanted a different life for himself, but he didn’t know how to get it. “People would say, ‘Go to school. Get a college degree, and you’ll get out of poverty.’ But who’s going to pay my mom’s rent while I’m going to school?”
High Support, High Expectations
The Year Up program is intense. Emily Schaffer, senior director of program and strategy at Year Up Bay Area, says it’s trying to solve two problems at once: on the one hand, there’s a large pool of 18- to 24-year-olds eager to start their careers but with no way of doing so. On the other, companies have too many “skills gaps,” or plenty of positions available but no one to fill them.
“Our students are filling that gap,” Schaffer said. Year Up currently serves more than 3,000 young adults across the country. In 2013, the nonprofit opened a San Jose campus and last year, Year Up Bay Area received a Youth Opportunity Fund grant to double the number of students it serves.
To make sure that these students are prepared for their internships at prestigious companies like Facebook, Year Up has to be tough on them from day one.
How tough? If students fail to show up at 8:30 on the dot every morning or if they dress unprofessionally, if they miss a deadline or even let a curse word slip, they rack up what’s called “an infraction,” which docks $15 from their stipend. Tally up too many infractions, and they “fire themselves” from the program.
While Year Up has high standards, it also has strong systems of support in place.
“With each infraction that's recorded, there's a conversation,” Schaffer said. “We talk to them about it, try to figure out what the source of it was, and see what we can do to support them in changing that.”
When students apply to Year Up, the admissions staff works with a team of social workers to try and get a sense of what kind of additional support they will need, like stable housing, food or mental health services.
Once they officially enroll in the program, each student is matched with an advisor that checks in with them weekly and helps them meet the program’s high expectations. This is why, even though Schaffer says most students earn at least one infraction, 93 percent make it through the five-month training phase and go on to land internships.
“We believe in high support and high expectations,” Schaffer said. “We want to provide as much support as we possibly can to our adults, and we know we don't do any favors by lowering our expectations of them. We want them to learn the lessons of high expectations here at Year Up, where it costs them $15 instead of a job.”
‘Nobody ever expected anything from me.’
Ortiz’s life is dramatically different today than it was three years ago. His Year Up internship placed him with eBay; before that, he had never even owned his own computer. And today, he’s working in user experience and design at PayPal.
He no longer sleeps on park benches or ends up in the hospital on a regular basis. Instead, he serves on the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, working on his college degree part-time while earning a salary that both supports himself and allows him to help out at home.
When asked where he would be if he hadn’t found the Year Up program, Ortiz doesn’t mince words: “I’d probably be dead.” He says he owes everything to Year Up, and that many of the students he graduated with feel the same way.
“I can attribute every single positive thing in my life right now to that program,” he said. “It was a life-changing program.”
But of all the things he initially found hard to believe about Year Up—getting paid to take business and technology courses, interning at eBay, the mentors he looked up to—there’s one thing that Ortiz encountered at Year Up that he values more than anything else: high expectations.
“Nobody ever expected anything from me. My whole entire life, my teachers would tell me to sit in the back and just pass me along,” he said, talking about teachers who told him they expected him to go to jail, or that the best he could hope for was a job at a fast food chain.
“[But at Year Up], they said, ‘You can do this. We know that you’re good enough and we want to hold you to the standard we know you can live up to.’ And that blew my mind.”
The Youth Opportunity Fund is part of the Citi Foundation’s Pathways to Progress initiative focused on preparing young people to thrive in today’s economy. In 2014, the Citi Foundation made a three-year, $50 million commitment to boost the career readiness of 100,000 low-income youth in 10 cities across the United States.
Learn more about other Youth Opportunity Fund grantees, including City Service Corps, Youth Venture in Boston and CIS of Miami.