Cultivating Young Workers

Julee Newberger
June 29, 2001

Laura Sildon began her adult working life helping the homeless and substance abusers as a clinical social worker. But after a few years, she became drawn to the idea of working instead to help individuals avoid those kinds of problems, by helping young people develop the skills to lead healthy, productive lives. In 1995, she met Montgomery County businessman Gene Kijowski, owner of a local pool management company, and learned of his plans to create a youth employment program.

"He'd [Gene] gone to a job fair and saw there were all these young people who wanted to work but there weren't many businesses," Sildon says. "There wasn't a mechanism to connect the two groups."

Sildon had held many different jobs growing up, including lifeguard and swim coach, not to mention obligatory adolescent stints in the retail and restaurant industries. The jobs taught her responsibility, conscientiousness and punctuality—assets that helped her succeed in graduate school and beyond. But Sildon knew that all kids did not have the opportunity to develop a strong work ethic and the skills it takes to make a transition from school to work.

"It's not part of school curriculum or what parents are teaching kids at home," Sildon says. "Kids need someone to teach them skills they can use in the workforce."

Sildon and Kijowski asked local businesses what type of youth resources they were looking for and created a business plan. They obtained seed money from the Private Industry Council, at that time the local recipient of federal dollars for youth employment training. In March 1996, Montgomery Youth Works began.

A Program Grows Up
Today, Sildon is executive director of the program, which helps kids from 14 to 22 learn how to write resumes, interview for jobs, dress appropriately, and master other skills important in the workplace. Approximately 1,000 young people complete the job readiness training each year, and 500 young people gain some kind of work experience, whether through a full-time job, part-time job or internship.

Montgomery Youth Works partners with over 150 companies in the county who hire for many different positions—year-round, summer, indoor or outdoor—from clerical to landscaping, life guarding to research, computers to child care and many more. Employers submit job descriptions of available positions, and Youth Works matches young people to jobs. Career training sessions are held once a month during the year and more frequently during the summer, when more young people are looking for jobs.

"Young people are eligible to be referred to employers based on qualifications and skill levels," says Damien Nugent, staffing coordinator. "Employers make hiring decisions; we don't make any guarantees." Youth Works follows up with employers and, if necessary, makes additional referrals.

Employers pay Montgomery Youth Works $200 for each successful job placement. The fees from participating businesses make up about 10 percent of Youth Works budget. "It would never cover the cost of serving the number of kids we serve, " Sildon says, "but the whole idea was to change the paradigm. Young people bring value to businesses, and businesses pay for value."

Practicing What You Preach
In addition to finding jobs for young people, Youth Works employs teens as part of their staff. Meg MacWhirter, 18, first learned of the organization when she tried to hire a young person to work in her father's printing business. MacWhirter needed to fill the spot that she'd occupied over the summer, and she was disappointed by sloppy applications and people who showed up late for interviews.

MacWhirter filled out a job order at Montgomery Youth Works, and promptly filled the position with a young person who stayed for two years. "She did an incredible job," MacWhirter says. "It was definitely the best person we could have found."

A year later, Montgomery Youth Works gave MacWhirter an opportunity to join the Job Opportunities for Business Solutions (JOBS) Team. Composed of 15 young employees, the JOBS Team works to increase support from local businesses and to increase awareness among young people and the community as a whole. "I've learned a lot just from that part of the process—the public speaking and networking with business leaders," MacWhirter says.

MacWhirter says the employers benefit from eagerness of young people and willingness to try new things. "You're giving young people the opportunity to have jobs outside waitressing, lifeguarding and babysitting," MacWhirter says. "They're getting the opportunity to go on a career path rather than just have a summer job."

A Bite Out of the Budget
Today, the program's primary source of funding comes from a federal grant under the Workforce Investment Act. Additional funds come from the Maryland State Department of Education and Montgomery County. The program also relies on the financial support from corporations, foundations, private grants and fundraisers.

Recent changes in federal funding have taken a bite out of Montgomery Youth Works' budget, particularly for their summer employment program. The Workforce Investment Act, implemented in 1999, focused funds on programs providing year-round, comprehensive services for kids, and de-emphasized traditional summer employment programs.

"One of the most significant changes is that we don't have a summer program that is specifically for kids who meet the federal criteria for being at-risk," Sildon says. "That's about 300 kids that we're not reaching out to this summer to get them employed. These are kids from low-income families, foster kids, etc. You're asked to do more with less."

According to data from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, nearby Prince Georges County had a 66 percent reduction in summer jobs for youth in summer 2000 under the Workforce Investment Act. Data for Montgomery County was not available.

"Workforce development and job readiness is so vital to individual success and the community," Sildon says. "It has to be bigger than how the federal government mandates it. Everybody should have exposure to workplace."

Reaching Out to a Diverse Community
Reduced federal funds don't mean that Montgomery Youth Works is not reaching out to underserved kids. Karimah Ware, 23, facilitates the educational empowerment program for 20 at-risk youth, ages 14 to17, who reside in Montgomery County public housing. The program has four main components: computer skills, job training skills, career exploration and tutoring. Harmony Careers International, a local business, provides computer training once a month for kids at each site. This summer, Ware will hold a summer career camp for kids at a local high school. Youth Works also serves an alternative school for kids who have been expelled from other schools.

Ware adds what she calls a "social component" to the program in which she encourages kids to talk about their day-to-day challenges in getting along with others and communicating. Her program demonstrates that there is much more to successful youth employment than resume-writing help, coaching in firm handshakes and how to dress for an interview, and a job-matching process. Education, confidence-building, skills training and information about the myriad of work opportunities that exist are all part of the process.

"We set high expectations for people who work here, for young people and for businesses," says Sildon. "We're raising the bar, and that's why we're so successful."



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