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Three Promising Practices that Prepare Youth for the Workforce

For the past six months, America’s Promise has published a series of profiles highlighting 2015 Youth Opportunity Fund grantees that are supporting innovative, scalable programs that place low-income youth on a path to college and career success. This is the first article to look at trends and promising practices across all 12 of them.

The Fund is led by the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance.

More than 5 million young people are not in school or working. The unemployment rate for Americans age 16-24 is 12.2 percent, more than twice the national average, and opportunities for low-income teens are often too far and few between.

In 2015, the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance set out to support programs that not only connect youth to economic opportunities, but also focus on inspiring and empowering young people to overcome barriers and fulfill their potential. The Youth Opportunity Fund invested in 12 nonprofits that are helping low-income youth build workplace skills to prepare them for careers in various sectors, further their education, and in some cases, break out of a cycle of generational poverty.

Much of what these nonprofits are doing are promising practices you’ll recognize.

They offer training and skill development, work experiences and industry connections, and informational support, like how to present in a job interview or apply to college. They eliminate financial hurdles to participate, and some of them even provide stipends. And not a single organization works alone, partnering with municipal governments, businesses and schools to create innovative programming and to expand their reach and expertise. 

As America’s Promise and the Citi Foundation have learned more about these organizations over the past year—conducting site visits, interviewing staff and young people, observing the work on the ground—it’s clear that while these strategies may get young people to enroll in a program, they’re not always what keep them there. Placing low-income youth on a path to college and career success requires more than just “upskilling.” It takes additional approaches that get little attention but make a profound difference:

1. Providing comprehensive support.

Urban Alliance in Washington, D.C., doesn’t just match students with internships. It goes through an extensive process to match students with their own personal mentors, who offer students support throughout the year.

In some cases, young people need more than an internship or help with a resume.

At YouthBuild Newark, many students are not just struggling to get a job or a diploma—they’re focused on surviving. So before students and interns start formal academic and job training, they go through weeks of counseling. Case managers are on hand to provide individual and group counseling and life-skills training, and staff connect students to additional support, as needed, from local social service agencies.

Many YouthBuild Newark students enroll for the stipend and the chance to earn their GEDs, most stay because it’s the one place they feel safe and supported. The staff “care about what’s going on,” Farah Etienne, 19, said of her experience. “They nurture. That will always keep me coming back.”

Café Momentum has a similar challenge and a similar approach. The Dallas-based restaurant provides adjudicated youth with culinary, job and life-skills training for careers in the restaurant industry. It also serves as a safe haven and second chance for young people, providing students with housing, healthcare and legal assistance as needed.

“They kept me focused. They never gave up on me,” Tony, 19, said of the staff at Café Momentum. He recently graduated from the program and is now working full-time at a restaurant in Dallas.

“There were times I should’ve been let go,” he admitted, “but they worked with me.”

2. Setting high expectations.

“Nobody ever expected anything from me,” said Peter Ortiz of Year Up Bay Area in San Francisco. “My whole entire life, my teachers would tell me to sit in the back and just pass me along. [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.”

Year Up Bay Area trains young people for careers in a variety of fields, but one thing they offer all students is a culture of high expectations. The program offers everything from the basics of workplace decorum—like making sure students show up on time in business attire—to highly technical training—like JavaScript and cybersecurity.

But what reinforces the curriculum is the organization’s deep, unflinching belief that underserved youth can go from never owning a personal computer to working at one of the largest financial tech companies, like Ortiz did.

The same could be said for all of the programs in the Youth Opportunity Fund. Whether training young people for careers in high-end restaurants, Fortune 500 companies, or cutting-edge and emerging industries, each of these programs expect and draw out greatness from the young people they serve.  

"A lot of us come from backgrounds that taught us not to expect much,” said a student said of Per Scholas, a tech-training program in New York City. “By placing a high expectation on us and placing a high expectation on ourselves, we're able to go above what we thought was possible."

3. Empowering youth to be problem-solvers.

These organizations don’t just see youth unemployment as a problem to solve—they see young people as extraordinary problem solvers.

Take City Service Corps at NYC Service in New York City. An AmeriCorps program, it has members working on everything from environmental issues to financial literacy. “We’re not just sitting around answering emails,” one Corps member said of her work. “It’s a lot of responsibility.”

Not only are these young people gaining valuable work experience and building leadership skills and self-confidence, they are equipping the city with a more diverse and enriched workforce (the majority of members are youth of color) providing more constituent services.

Per Scholas, Year Up Bay Area, and Urban League’s Youth Tech in St. Louis are filling skills gaps in their cities and bringing much-needed diversity to the field of STEM.

YouthBuild Newark interns are helping to build affordable housing. Students in United Way’s Youth Venture program in Boston are coming up with amazing social entrepreneurship ideas to solve their communities’ challenges. The Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership’s Manufacturing Careers Internship Program is preparing students to fill the 3.5 million jobs expected to open up in manufacturing over the next decade.

In Los Angeles, the Center for Powerful Public Schools is empowering students to create an environmentally sustainable city, while UNITE-LA is creating career pathways for youth to become professionals in the burgeoning healthcare industry.

To even begin to tackle the problem of youth unemployment, these programs make it clear that you have to empower young people to be part of the solution.

As one student from Communities in Schools of Miami said: “I want to come back and give to some of those families who are really, really struggling. Because I know some of them personally. And I know that they are trying. But they just can’t make it.

“So why not help them?”

*The above photos were provided by the organizations they represent and used with their permission. 

For more in-depth coverage of these programs, check out our 2015 Grantee News Features and Blogs.