The Power of a Paycheck

I received my first real paycheck at 15 when I started a job bussing for a small catering company. I remember how heavy that piece of paper felt in my hands; weighty with the implications of adolescent freedom. It was the first of many important building blocks that eventually turned into a solid foundation for my current position as a Development Associate here at Juma Ventures, one of the nation's leading youth development agencies and a finalist in the Job Raising Challenge.

That was nearly 10 years ago -- not long, in the scheme of things -- but long enough to make me count my lucky stars I was a teenager during the booming turn of the century rather than now. Today, teenagers have a rough time in a job market that edges out the young, poor, and inexperienced. The McKinsey Center for Government recently published a report on the disconnect between education and employment in America. The report found that 75 million youth are currently unemployed, and that 40 percent of employers are leaving entry-level jobs unfilled due to candidates' lack of work readiness skills.

Juma Ventures is working to change that.

We're answering the job crisis by creating jobs for our most vulnerable youth. Juma provides low-income high school students with job training, work and management experience, and soft skills that set them apart from their peers. We reinforce the job experience with core education services and financial capability training. With support from Juma, students set educational and professional goals that reach beyond basic employment.

One shining example is Adriana R., a Juma student and friend of mine. I see her frequently these days because she's often in the office fulfilling her new role as Park Assistant Manager at one of Juma's San Francisco enterprises. In addition to working at Juma, Adriana studies at San Francisco State University. She is on track to graduate in 2016 with a BA in psychology and plans to pursue a graduate degree in counseling.

Like many students, the job initially attracted Adriana to Juma. As a low-income high school sophomore, she was eager to work as a vendor at AT&T Park. These days, it's uncommon for an employer to hire a 16-year-old, but Juma does so knowing they will thrive. Adriana embraced the opportunity and was quickly promoted to Youth Manager. She credits much of her success to her adult ally on the Juma staff, Marley Williams. "She helped me in every single class, with college applications, and my personal life," Adriana says. "My life was all over the place before Juma, but my mentorship with Marley really taught me responsibility and accountability with my job, school, and personal life."

The McKinsey report explains that successfully moving between and gaining advancement in the educational to professional spheres is difficult because "employers, education providers, and youth live in parallel universes. To put it another way, they have fundamentally different understandings of the same situation [...] this is because they are not engaged with each other." The work training and experiences that Juma provides, along with mentorship opportunities -- as between Marley and Adriana -- help students advance from one sphere to the next. Adriana explains, "Being immersed in [Juma's] atmosphere taught me what professionalism looks like." She recognizes that most of her friends and peers did not receive the same opportunity -- many had a hard time graduating from high school, and now struggle to find or keep a job.

Just as my bussing job built the foundation for my current career 10 years ago, Juma provides the building blocks to success that so many young people, especially those from low-income communities, are now struggling to find. These blocks make the leap to a professional career attainable for hundreds of talented youth -- our future workforce. Adriana is a testament to the impact of the opportunities Juma provides. Having already built her foundation at 19, she's ready to conquer the stars.

By Sophie Speer, Development Associate at Juma Ventures