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Before You Build Skills, Build Relationships

In an in-depth look at four workforce development and career readiness programs across the country, a new Center for Promise report demonstrates that building supportive relationships with young people is just as important as building their skills.

Relationships Come First: How Four Career Development and Workforce Readiness Programs Prepare Young People for Work and Life provides insights into the essential nature of relationships in career development.

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“It goes well beyond just teaching them a job skill,” a Café Momentum staff member said about the program.

Major Findings

Center for Promise researchers studied four Youth Opportunity Fund community partners—Café Momentum, Per Scholas, Urban Alliance, and Year Up Bay Area—and came to these four conclusions.

  1. Relationships come first. There’s no question that each of these programs place a major emphasis on providing specific skills training—from classes in IT and coding to hospitality and business etiquette. But they all place relationship-building between young people and program staff at the forefront of their models.

    “It goes well beyond just teaching them a job skill,” a Café Momentum staff member said, adding that workforce development is also about “being available for them, being ready to respond, finding resources that they need to position them to be successful.”

  2. Webs of support are integral to the program design. In each program, there’s more than just one adult focused on the young people’s well-being and development. They have what the researchers refers to as a web of support—a network of individuals that provides a young person with varying levels and types of support.
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The difference between traditional workforce readiness programs and ones that focus on relationships.
  1. Relationships endure and extend beyond the program. Each program fosters webs of support for their participants beyond the program. Even after they finish their internships or classes, graduates have a system of relationships in place that helps them sustain continued employment and overall adult success.

    “Realizing the necessity for maintaining a web of support after training ends, all four programs offer some form of extended support beyond program completion,” the report states. “Each program has also incorporated alumni support and outreach either formally or informally into their program.”

  2. Relationship-building approaches differ depending on who the program serves. Each program takes a different approach to relationship-building, depending on the needs and strengths of the young people they serve. For example, for a program like Café Momentum that serves formerly incarcerated youth with few resources, the program might place a greater emphasis on a case management model.

    “Many of our interns—they’re not just dealing with going to school and going to work where there are so many other things outside of that…maybe situations at home, or just simple things like getting back and forth to work as far as transportation,” an Urban Alliance staff member said. “So as program coordinators, we are usually that person that jumps in and provides maybe a [transit pass] or just talking on the phone to advise them…”

Check out what young people had to say about their experiences in the video below:


Implications for Program Development

For those interested in developing their own workforce development and career readiness programs, the report has a few words of advice.

Set aside time to build relationships, preferably before focusing on skill-building. One program has case managers who grab coffee with their students every week, while others text them regularly to check in.

Offer alumni services. Have a system in place to offer graduates advice on “career-related and personal topics, such as resume refreshers, mock interviews, or understanding the ins and outs of financial aid.”

Hire a dedicated staff. This often means hiring employees who can go above and beyond a typical 9-to-5 work day and provide the necessary support to remove barriers that could impede a young person’s success. For example, one program helped connect a young person and that person’s entire family with health care.

Develop a multidisciplinary approach. “Programs should deliver services as part of multidisciplinary teams that represent a range of human service domains,” the report advises. “Ensuring that career development activities are situated in broader human development interventions will support young people’s success as a part of a more inclusive and diverse workforce.”

The Youth Opportunity Fund, led by the Citi Foundation and America’s Promise Alliance, provides grants to nonprofits working in innovative ways to place low-income young adults on a path toward college and career success in 10 cities across the United States.

Read the full report and learn more about the four organizations here. For more stories about all Youth Opportunity Fund community partners, visit our Medium page.