Boston’s Jobs For Youth Shifts Upmarket

Martha Nichols
July 1, 1998

Talk about a turnaround: In the late 1970s, Jobs for Youth was located on a downtown side street, in a shabby building typical of nonprofit youth-serving agencies. The facility was hard to find, and there were never any walk-in clients. Its main goal was to help high-school dropouts get jobs of any kind — no small feat during the Carter years of double-digit unemployment. The agency focused on "job readiness" — a few weeks of grooming and "always-be-on-time" pep talks — and making as many job placements as possible. Corporate types wouldn't have been caught dead in the building.

The new Jobs for Youth office here, which opened in 1997, has a prime location off Boston Common; its bright banner is visible as soon as you step out of the Park Street subway station. It does a brisk business, with about five walk-ins a day and full use of its networked computer center. The development director's office — formerly a bank president's — has a view of the State House's golden dome. These days, JFY offers more than job readiness and GED classes: it also trains clients for highly skilled work in financial services and environmental technology — with starting salaries as high as $35,000. Executives attend meetings in a spacious conference room, and corporations pay job-placement fees when they hire JFY's clients.

During 21 years of operation, JFY Boston has, for better or for worse, undergone a transformation. It now markets services to the corporate world while concurrently trying to maintain its original mission of getting decent work for poor young people. The story of how this organization has adapted itself to the '90s can provide pointers for other nonprofits struggling with today's funding exigencies.

It's also a primer on the changing political landscape, particularly in the aftermath of welfare reform. Job-training initiatives have always involved an uneasy mix of private enterprise and public funding. The whole point is to move people into jobs in the private sector, even if many policymakers question using government funds for the task.

Critics accuse JFY, as well as the other job-training nonprofits attempting to cope with the business climate of the '90s, of being so business-oriented it no longer has a charitable social mission. "Our sell with industries right now," says Executive Director Gary Kaplan, "is not a social services sell [such as] 'Be a good guy, give a kid a chance'. It's, `You need bodies, we all know that. We can do the bodies for you, and we'll do it cheaper, better . . .and they'll stay with you longer.'"

Yet dealing with the "business" devil may constitute realistic social action in these times. The fact is, administrators like Kaplan base their programs on a belief that clients — in JFY's case, 75 percent are minorities — cannot only be trained as lab technicians and claims adjusters, but also deserve the same shot as middle-class college students at a decent wage and vocation.

From Job Readiness to Entrepreneurship

Jobs for Youth in Boston opened in 1977, under the direction of Fred Jungmann. He had been on the board of the first JFY office in New York, which got its start in 1958 with funding from some of the city's most prominent families. Jungmann dreamed of creating a nationwide JFY network, and he made it as far as Boston and Chicago. While these three Jobs for Youth locations still exist, they don't form an integrated network. They are separate operations with different boards and funding structures.

They differ partly because "the programs are tailored to the communities they exist in," points out Jack Connelly, executive director of JFY Chicago since 1980. The Chicago agency focuses on what Connelly calls its "core program": a job placement and preparation service for low-income kids. Of the three JFYs, Chicago is the only one that exclusively serves youth, which it defines as people 17- to 24-years-old. It makes 1,700 job placements annually (a number that has doubled in the past two years) to about 500 local businesses. Although the placements rank higher than minimum-wage fast-food slots, JFY Chicago doesn't have an advanced-skill training program. Neither the Chicago nor New York agencies charge companies for job placements.

Unlike the larger and more diverse employment base in New York and Chicago (Connelly notes that the entry-level jobs of his clients range from clerical to factory work), Boston has become a high-technology professional mecca. Since the 1970s, JFY Boston has made about 7,000 job placements, but its focus has become skill training rather than volume of placements. In 1981, for instance, the agency had 503 new clients and made 478 job placements at an average wage of $3.75 an hour. In 1997, it had 513 clients and made 239 job placements. Of those placements, 218 were for low-skill positions with wages of $5.75 to $12.00 an hour. But 21 of the placements were for high-skill jobs with average salaries of $23,000 a year. These placements are expected to account for about a third of the total by next year.

GED classes, though smaller than in the past, are a component of JFY's tougher, stricter education programs. Kaplan, who took over in 1985 when Jungmann retired, decided to emphasize "higher quality throughout" by raising the bar for GED program applicants to achieve higher graduation rates. In 1981, for example, 245 people were enrolled in JFY Boston's education programs, but no outcome data are available. In 1997, only 74 were enrolled, but 33 got GEDs or high-school diplomas.
Several other projects which looked promising at the time have gone the way of the dinosaur. JFY Boston's youth entrepreneurship program fell apart along with the economy in the 1980s. (See story, page 49.)

The Switch to Advanced Skill Training

By the early 1990s, it was clear to JFY's staff that job readiness did not match the post-industrial economy. Blue-collar skilled jobs were disappearing in Boston, and those who took low-skills jobs were unlikely ever to get more than low wages. Moving clients in the direction of white-collar jobs was the obvious answer. The question was, how do you train poor young people without college educations for such work?

Kaplan developed a training program for specific skilled positions, beginning with technicians for biotechnology companies. Although the industry normally required college graduates to fill such positions, JFY's low-income trainees only needed a high-school diploma (or GED), some kind of work experience, and tenth-grade reading ability.

The Charles Hayden Foundation donated about $250,000 over three years (1991 to 1993) to jump-start this effort. The City of Boston also wanted to move inner-city people into the booming biotech industry and asked Jobs for Youth to run its program, funneling $60,000 of federal Job Training Partnership Act funds into the project. Although the biotech component foundered when the local industry collapsed, it became the blueprint for JFY's advanced-skill training program. JFY developed the curriculum by working with two employer partners, the New England Medical Center and Genetics Institute, and an academic partner, the Boston University School of Medicine CityLab. Clients who qualified entered a nine-month training program, which included tutoring and counseling. Although some executives were skeptical that JFY's trainees could do the work, it turned out they did fine. In fact, they often did better than their college-educated counterparts, and tended to stay longer once placed at a job.

Just as conservative pundits and politicians predicted, public-funding cutbacks have worked to this organization's advantage. (See story, page 50.) JFY Boston has had good corporate connections since it opened its doors with a philosophy of looking to the private sector for leverage. Once JFY began negotiating with the financial-services industry in the mid-1990s, which was struggling to fill job openings as the economy heated up again, it found itself in the catbird seat rather than in the traditional nonprofit position of begging for help.

With initial support from Mellon Trust in Boston, and academic input from Suffolk University and the University of Massachusetts at Boston, JFY developed a financial-services curriculum based on what workers actually do, such as settling trades, currency conversions, and accounting activities. Mellon hired half of the first year's trainees, and JFY recruited State Street Bank, Brown Brothers Harriman, and other local companies to participate as well. The training segment has been reduced to about four months, a more realistic length of time for JFY's clients. Of the 27 people placed in financial-
services jobs since 1997, only 3 haven't worked out.

Placement fees from JFY's corporate clients now cover half of the financial-services program costs. Corporations pay JFY the same rate they pay commercial staffing firms — typically 15 to 25 percent of the worker's annual salary.

The new office space, which was renovated with the help of the Hayden Foundation, the Amelia Peabody Foundation, and USTrust, is just part of JFY's ambitious plan for marketing itself to companies. It has begun developing a curriculum for information technology technicians, the professionals who install computers, hook up networks, and work the customer help desk. "As much as we can," Kaplan says, "we're linking our whole program and payment structure to industry so that we become an extension of their HR [Human Resources] department."

Who Gets Left Behind?

These efforts are impressive, based on sound research into the local job market. Yet JFY's business appeal of, "We can do the bodies for you" means it walks that line between social mission and hard sell. Kaplan himself notes that JFY's advanced-skill training is not a welfare-to-work program; not all participants have been welfare recipients, and this program is "market-oriented." In fact, the number of clients that have completed JFY's advanced-skill training is still small, about 160 over the past five years. In addition, most trainees are in their mid-twenties rather than younger at-risk kids. JFY has evolved, but in the process it may have left some of its target population behind.

Erik Butler, executive director at Boston's Pine Street Inn homeless shelter, says JFY has "stuck pretty close to its original mission — serving high-school dropouts." But JFY's mix of public and private funding "makes it more difficult to address the hard-to-serve." In this, Butler notes, JFY is not alone. Many nonprofits, which rely increasingly on private funding and corporate sponsorship, are forced away from high-risk populations, such as "the multiply challenged" that pass through Pine Street. According to Butler, "We're having to create our own employment experiences in-house, because most of the folks we work with take a higher investment" in time and preparation. Pine Street offers four nine-month training programs in cooking, data entry, industrial cleaning, and warehouse management — jobs that are lower on the professional ladder, but help fill the gap for less-prepared homeless clients.

JFY New York's skill-training program, which developed in conjunction with Boston's, also has a broader reach. It provides training in five areas: hospitality, building maintenance/construction, computer, clerical, and mailroom management. Again, this is not the professional tier JFY Boston has targeted, but the New York agency "placed about 1,000 young people in work settings in 1997," says Director Raymond Saltini.

Invisible Hands: The Market Is Political

JFY Boston, with a current staff of 14, is proud of the fact that its advanced skill training curricula involve participating employers on a continuing basis. This helps JFY tailor training to exactly what companies need; at the same time, it allows corporations with community goals to support nonprofits in innovative ways. "We are delighted to consider any employment source in this job market," says a wry Sarah Allen, vice president of human resources at Mellon. But her company's involvement in JFY's programs also "meets all of our objectives in shaping community development."

JFY also offers individual case-planning, counseling, and follow-up. Once a month, it holds a roundtable for recent graduates, which functions as a support group to help them adjust better to their new jobs. Like many training-oriented nonprofit organizations, JFY in Boston emphasizes more than "get a job, stupid."

Once trainees finish the financial-services program and are placed, for example, they are encouraged to get their bachelor's degrees. Mellon Trust and Brown Brothers Harriman offer tuition reimbursement as part of their benefits packages. JFY graduates will soon be able to enroll in Suffolk University classes; the university will forgive whatever tuition the student's employer won't cover, all the way through a master's degree in business administration. Potentially, Kaplan says, "You can stagger in here with a GED and a job flipping hamburgers; 15 weeks later you're crunching numbers at Mellon, then you're enrolled in Suffolk — and 7 years later you have an MBA."

This work-to-school model is a long way from the "complete social and economic transformation" that Kaplan claims. If the local economy collapses and companies no longer need "bodies," JFY may have to change directions again. Yet work-to-school may be more promising than welfare-to-work. "Private industry is saying, ‘We don't get enough people prepared for work,'" says Lewis Gitelman, chair of the Boston Workforce Development Coalition. "Jobs for Youth shows on a micro level what a community-based career ladder can look like."

Conservative ideologues may think any job is better than welfare, and that funding expensive training programs is not in the public interest. But JFY provides an alternative to short-term job placement, one founded on the need for educational and professional development over the course of an individual's work life. Whether you like the sound of "marketing" people or not, JFY in Boston is thriving because of its entrepreneurialism and corporate clients. It has become a key intermediary between the public and private sectors — a new role for those with a mission.

Resources

Jobs for Youth, Boston

125 Tremont St.

Boston, MA 02108

(617) 338-0815

Jobs for Youth, New York

312 W. 36th St., Ste. 500

New York, NY 10018

(212) 643-6600

Jobs for Youth, Chicago

50 E. Washington St.

Chicago, IL 60602

(312) 782-2086

Sidebar:

Boston’s Jobs For Youth Shifts Upmarket: The Risk of Youth Microenterprise

Boston’s Jobs For Youth Shifts Upmarket: When Political Winds Shift


Nichols, Martha. "Boston’s Jobs For Youth Shifts Upmarket." Youth Today, July/August 1998, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.

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