Chicago group helps kids “earn” jobs

Chicago group helps kids “earn” jobs – Jobs for Youth

Lawrence Rudman

From an open window, a perfect spring day breezes across the Chicago Loop classroom. Twenty young men and women nervously sit, dressed in their best business attire. One by one, they walk to the front desk and introduce themselves to volunteer instructor Veronica Barney, who takes them through a practice job interview.

For 19-year-old Eloise Bullock and her classmates, this is one of the most difficult tasks required of them by Jobs For Youth, a nonprofit agency that places low-income youths in unsubsidized private-sector jobs.

Bullock, a welfare-dependent mother of a 1 -year-old, hopes to join nearly 1,000 successful Jobs for Youth graduates who last year were able to turn to work instead of welfare. Jobs for Youth is supported by more than 200 businesses and corporations and places graduates with more than 350 local employers.

Team approach gets results

Julie Dillon, director of volunteer services for Jobs for Youth, attributes her agency’s team-oriented approach of counseling, placement, and followup for its 10-year track record of successful job placements.

“Everyone gets 2 years of Jobs for Youth service from our team of 100 volunteer tutors and counselors, as well as our full-time staff,” says Dillon.

“When you walk in here, you are immediately assigned to an employment counselor,” she explains. Everyone is then enrolled in a 3-week workshop taught by a variety of volunteers from local businesses.

The 3-week pre-employment workshop-3 hours daily-covers career development, how to complete job applications, body language, dressing for interviews, language skills, interviewing techniques, and job-keeping skills.

“Emphasis is on not only getting a job, but keeping a job,” explains Dillon. “Exposure to successful role models is key to our success.”

Volunteers such as a bank vice president, account executives from ad agencies, and executives like the U.S. Department of Treasury’s Veronica Barney, provide positive role models for students as well as expert instruction and guidance.

“I tell them an interview is like combat,” says Barney. “You’ve got to prepare and practice.”

Students matched with counselors

Following the 3-week workshop, each student is matched with an individual vocational counselor to assess the student’s strengths and weaknesses, employability, and career interests.

“We work closely with students to overcome barriers to employment, such as attitudes toward work, low self-esteem, and lack of day care for young parents,” says Dillon.

Everyone entering the program is also tested to ascertain their reading and math competency levels. Those who test below the sixth grade level register for the G.E.D. (Graduate Equivalency Degree) exam and attend the Jobs for Youth Learning Center.

Tim Brown, 19, found a job in restaurant maintenance through Jobs for Youth. He comes to the Learning Center every day after work to study for his G.E.D. exam. Brown sees his restaurant job as temporary and plans to go to college or join the military.

“I’ve really learned to communicate with people,” says Brown. “Everything I was asked in my real job interview I learned how to handle here,” he says.

Others, like Earett Fisher, landed a job in the maintenance department at the American Red Cross headquarters in Chicago. Mercantile Exchange employee Alex Guerrero enrolled in Jobs for Youth Learning Center and earned his G.E.D. studying part-time. Another young man is now working to become a gemologist at a local jeweler, while a young woman secured a position as a trader’s assistant in a brokerage office.

Mac Olsen, Jobs for Youth director of communications, says a real measure of success is in the quality of jobs the young people earn. “When we first started out 10 years ago,” he says, “more than 50 percent of our jobs were in fast foods. Now, that’s less than 15 percent.”

Local businesses make this possible

Strong support from local businesses and employers enables Jobs for Youth to maintain quality job placements.

Jobs for Youth Employment Services representative Kay Trotter points to the Youth Training and Development program at Kraft, Inc., corporate headquarters in suburban Glenview, Illinois.

“The Kraft program is designed to give our graduates 6 weeks of practical working experience in a corporate setting,” says Trotter. Kraft has been able to hire more than 40 Jobs for Youth graduates.

“Our kids are not promised a job, they have to earn it,” says Trotter. “They have an opportunity to let Kraft know how good they are.”

But teaching their students how to take advantage of that opportunity to prove themselves often presents a challenge for staff and volunteers at Jobs for Youth.

“Most of the kids come in here with battered self-esteem,” says Liz Hersh, director of youth services. Hersh says Jobs for Youth helps kids build confidence through discipline, hard work, and accomplishment.

“Just walking into this big building, going up the elevator, talking to strangers on the phone and in person, conforming to the dress code-that builds confidence,” she says.

“It’s also self-selection. They screen themselves out. They have to punch in on the time clock for the workshop, and unexcused lateness or absences mean they’re out of the program. We demand a high level of performance.”

Performance is also what the Illinois Department of Public Aid hopes to tap from a recently signed employment and training contract with Jobs for Youth. The contract, which calls for Jobs for Youth to place 75 public aid recipients in jobs, was negotiated with Illinois’ Project Chance, the largest welfare-to-work program in the country.

With minority youth employment running nearly 50 percent in large urban areas like Chicago, the staff at Jobs for Youth have no illusions about their overall impact on the problem.

“We received 1,100 calls in 3 days after running some public service radio announcements recently,” says Liz Hersh. “For the ones who actually come in here, it really shows they’re motivated. And for those kids who need a break and have a strong desire to work and a willingness to change, Jobs for Youth can make a difference.”

Recent enrollee Michael Burger, 18, agrees. “Even my parents have noticed the improvement in me,” he says. “I’m up early every morning, really motivated, and full of hope.”

For more information, contact: John D. Connelly, Executive Director Jobs for Youth 67 East Madison Street Room 1900 Chicago, Illinois 60603 Telephone: (312) 782-2086

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