Connecting Our Nation's Youth to Their First Real Job

By Lori Kaplan, President & CEO Latin American Youth Center (LAYC)

There are certain things in life you never forget: your favorite pet's name, your first kiss, and your first real job! Ask anyone, and they will remember crazy details about their first real job. Sitting around with friends, we tell stories of our high school jobs in grocery or pet stores, selling magazines , serving as life guards, and we laugh, mostly at ourselves and our earnest but not always successful efforts to step into the adult realm. No matter the job, it provided an unforgettable learning experience, opening our eyes to the world of work.

I bagged groceries after school at a small neighborhood market. Not the most interesting job, but I learned some basic skills. I had to arrive on time. I had a schedule and a minimally engaged supervisor. I had to be friendly to the customers and I had to say yes to "other duties as assigned," which included sweeping and cleaning. I learned invaluable things about getting, keeping, and managing a job. I also learned that I did not want to do that kind of work for the rest of my life.
We all remember that first paycheck as we thought to ourselves, "All those hours and this is what I made? Why is it so small? There must be some mistake!" No matter the disappointment, I remember a sense of pride in earning my own money. I had worked for it and was getting paid to do a real job. It was a great feeling!

Looking back, things seemed so simple for me and my friends growing up in the 60's. Today, getting that first real job is much more complicated for our nation's young people who too often are disconnected from the education and career pathway they need to land a first job, succeed in the workplace, and leverage a job to a meaningful career.

Most low-income youth want and need after-school jobs. Whether in or out of school, they hit the pavement daily in search of a job. They need money to stay in school, to help their family, to support their child, to pay for travel back and forth to school, for books, clothes, and daily expenses. Too often, they do not have the needed connections, skills, and support that would successfully prepare them for the world of work. They are disconnected from career pathways and the education they need to secure their first job and move on from there.

As the economy has sagged, our nation's young people compete - often with experienced adults -- for any job they can find. Many young people lack soft and hard skills specific to today's entry-level jobs. They do not know how to succeed in the workforce. They do not have connections; they do not have support.

Our nation has not made youth employment a priority. State and city funds have been severely cut back for both summer and year-round programs. The federal government's Workforce Investment program is constantly at risk of elimination. Training opportunities provided by government are few and far between. Due to bureaucratic rules and regulations, unrealistic time frames and outcome measures, and too often government mismanagement, available funds don't offer the training and job placement opportunities that our young people need to succeed in the workplace.

Fortunately, there are some fantastic, innovative, nonprofit organizations that offer a recipe for success to help young people obtain the skills needed to get their first job and move on from that job. The success of these organizations - Urban Alliance is one of them -- is based on values that support young people's employment goals:

• First and most importantly, these nonprofit organizations provide young people with access and connections to people and jobs that they could not get on their own. As intermediary organizations, they work with the corporate sector to identify jobs and then relentlessly and intentionally secure internships and opportunities for our youth.

• Second, the nonprofits identify and train supportive supervisors who care about young people and want them to succeed. An effective supervisor invests in each young person as if the youth's success were the supervisor's own.

• Third, the nonprofits train the young people and get them ready to succeed. Staff patiently and rigorously teach the necessary soft skills so that youth understand how to succeed in the workplace: interact with a supervisor, dress appropriately, get to work on time, etc. Nonprofit staff connect youth to caring adults and mentors who help them navigate the complexities of job success. And they don't send them to the job until they are ready to succeed!

• Finally, nonprofits do this in a supportive, youth-engaging way, employing staff mentors and youth advocates who are truly invested in young people's success. When the youth makes a mistake, the adult is there to intervene, advocate, and support them so that the young person does not give up.

Our government and the corporate sector must make youth employment a priority. Funding streams should be realistic, multi-year, and go to high- performing nonprofit organizations that serve as the glue and connectors between youth and their first job. With support from high-performing youth employment nonprofit organizations, our young people can succeed in their first job and find a pathway to a meaningful career that they too will never forget. Urban Alliance, a national organization headquartered in the District of Columbia, is one of these high-performing nonprofits. The JobRaising Challenge award is a much deserved recognition of Urban Alliance's work. With it, Urban Alliance will be able to help many more of our nation's young people obtain the skills and opportunities they need so that they too can one day reminisce about their amazing first job.