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Program Helps At-Risk Youth Find Corporate Jobs

December 23, 2008 at 6:25 PM EDT
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To alleviate the 30 percent unemployment rate among urban youth, the Year Up program gives at-risk youth lessons in corporate culture and work ethic. Paul Solman reports on this approach to training young, would-be entrepreneurs.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, another in our series of stories about social entrepreneurs. Tonight, how one program is helping inner-city youth. Economics correspondent Paul Solman reports.

TEACHER: … nice stories, but do we just want to tell stories or do we want to make history?

PAUL SOLMAN, NewsHour economics correspondent: Joe Gerina is a key staffer at Year Up, a job training program which uses business methods to achieve social change for at-risk urban youth whose unemployment rate is estimated at 30 percent these days.

TEACHER: And that’s what we do. We tell stories that come to life.

PAUL SOLMAN: And they screened a few such stories at this year’s annual staff retreat.

STUDENT: My name is Jaya Cooper. I am 23 years old. I’m from Bedford Stuyvesant in Brooklyn.

STUDENT: My name is Roberto Velez. I am 22 years. I was born and raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a lot of gang territories, a lot of drug-trafficking in and out of the neighborhood.

STUDENT: Highbridge area by Yankee Stadium. I’m from the Bronx.

PAUL SOLMAN: Lasarde is a Year Up student still in job training; Cooper in an apprenticeship, the next step after training; Velez in the last phase, a good job, in his case on Wall Street, still working when so many have been laid off.

What does Year Up teach? Hard skills, like computer technology, and lots of so-called soft skills, like social networking.

STUDENT: My favorite was how to hold a plate, a cup and a napkin in one hand and still have a hand free to give a handshake.

PAUL SOLMAN: Begun in 2000 and already in six different cities, Year Up pays young adults for five months of transformational training and then installs them in six-month apprenticeships designed to lead to high-wage jobs.

Ysir Arias is a new mom with an old problem: juggling responsibilities at home with those at work, the first of which is getting to the job on time, because if you don’t manage to make it all the way to downtown Boston by the appointed hour, at Year Up, your pay is docked and you lose points. Lose enough, and you’re out of the program.

At the staff retreat held in New Hampshire this year, teacher Richard Dubuisson explained that one key to Year Up is its behavior modification system.

RICHARD DUBUISSON, Year Up teacher: Behavior modification system, where students lose points and lose money on their stipend that they earn with us for being even a second late to class.

PAUL SOLMAN: A second?

RICHARD DUBUISSON: A second. So class starts at 8:30. At 8:30 on the dot, I close the door. Even for students who are walking to class, and I see them walking, at 8:30, I close the door and I start my class.

TEACHER: Just to remind everyone that we like to close the door at 8:30 because, when we say we start a meeting on time, we start a meeting on time.

RICHARD DUBUISSON: If a student comes in late to our program and they call ahead and say, “I’m running late,” they will lose $15 out of their stipend.

PAUL SOLMAN: Fifteen out of how much?

RICHARD DUBUISSON: Fifteen dollars out of $171 for the week, for every lateness instance. If they don’t call, they lose $25.

PAUL SOLMAN: At the start of the program, you’re given 200 points. If you’re late…

RICHARD DUBUISSON: You lose 15 points. When your point total gets to zero, you essentially fire yourself from the program. And I say fire yourself from the program, and we explain it the same way to students, because we say it’s your behavior that’s causing the consequence. It has nothing to do with me.

PAUL SOLMAN: Constant feedback is another key part of the program, kind but direct.

TEACHER: … like two minutes late or it’s a missed assignment, so my challenge to you is to work on those little things that are catching you up.

Shifting to a professional world

PAUL SOLMAN: All feedback ends with eye contact and a handshake for students who begin the program at an eighth-grade reading and math level on average and no college degree. What's toughest about the training? Student Caitlin Carlson.

CAITLIN CARLSON, Year Up student: The transition to being professional, professional behavior, professional language. And in one of my classes, we have stop words, words we have to stop saying. And...

PAUL SOLMAN: Like what?

CAITLIN CARLSON: "Ain't," "yo." Instead of "no" -- instead of "nah," we'll say "no." Instead of "yeah"...

PAUL SOLMAN: Instead of what?

CAITLIN CARLSON: "Nah," like, "Nah, I didn't do that." You say, "No, I didn't do that."

PAUL SOLMAN: How did you talk before you got here?

CAITLIN CARLSON: "So, yo, you did your homework?" And then now we've got to be like, "Hey, Clark, did you do your homework?"

PAUL SOLMAN: Say it again, the two.

CAITLIN CARLSON: "Hey, Clark, did you do your homework?"

PAUL SOLMAN: Well, what's wrong with using slang?

CAITLIN CARLSON: I don't see a problem with using slang. It's a form of language. It's an expression like all languages. That's kind of my peeve with the professional world.

PAUL SOLMAN: Teacher Dubuisson's response?

RICHARD DUBUISSON: I'm teaching class, and a student says, "Can I 'axe' you a question?" So part of that, as the instructor, my role is to empower urban talent to reach their potential.

So I have to, in the moment, stop class and talk about that. "Axe" you a question, what is the proper way to say that? The word is "ask," and then not just say that, but explain -- let me help you understand what that would look like in a corporate environment, how you'd be perceived if you were to speak that way.

PAUL SOLMAN: You learn to look people in the eye, shake hands, and smile. At first, these students, now Year Up staffers themselves, were suspicious.

JAMARA WAKEFIELD: Well, what does it mean if I don't want to smile at work? Like, what does that say about me? And why are you telling me to shake someone's hand? Why are you telling me to write a follow-up e-mail and spell check? So, for me, it was really about questioning everything. I'm just like, "Why?"

KIANA KING: Or feeling as if, if I did put on that smile, like Jamara was saying, the smile and the shaking the hand, and I just felt like it was fake to me.

PAUL SOLMAN: But it doesn't seem fake anymore.

JAMARA WAKEFIELD: And I think once you learn to smile, you actually like it. So that's fine. I think it's completely authentic. And it feels good to be able to talk to you and smile or shake your hand and communicate in that way. So there you go.

Facing an imploding job market

PAUL SOLMAN: By urban education standards, Year Up seems a striking success: 83 percent student-retention rate; 87 percent employment rate; average wage of $15.50 an hour; just named social capitalist of the year by Fast Company magazine.

And this despite the challenges of working exclusive with so-called disconnected youth, a group most schools find discouragingly daunting.

For all its victories, however, Year Up may now be facing its toughest challenge yet: an imploding job market. In any recession, the old saw holds -- last hired, first fired -- but in this one, almost every job seems at risk.

TEACHER: I know that you'll succeed in that when you get there. And when you do, you'll earn that big-paying job.

PAUL SOLMAN: So given the economic crisis, are false hopes being kindled here? Is this a waste of venture philanthropy, where a do-gooder non-profit like this one applies business criteria to both its students and itself in a market where doing good is now a luxury?

No, says Year Up. It actually has a leg up in a shrinking economy, by being more flexible, providing cheaper and more motivated employees.

STUDENT: I love being here. I want to go to school for science. I want to go to school for biotech. You will put that motivation in me, make me like want more out of life.

STUDENT: I started as an intern. They loved me, signed me up for a contract, and they just keep coming -- I just keep coming back. They won't let me go.

PAUL SOLMAN: For example, unlike most places, Year Up can switch fast to different fields with jobs, green jobs, for instance, says Year Up founder Gerald Chertavian.

GERALD CHERTAVIAN, founder, Year Up: Because if we look at the green economy, we know there's going to be a significant need for things like audits, so energy audits, people who actually are professional, who can come into a business, come into a home, and actually say, "Let's look at your environment."

PAUL SOLMAN: Jobs with a future, in other words, as seen by companies, which Year Up calls its clients.

GERALD CHERTAVIAN: Many of our workforce development programs in America are not listening to the client. And the client will tell you what skills they need today and need tomorrow.

So as security evolves in the information technology industry, as things like BlackBerries grow in increasing importance, if we can stay ahead of that curve and be nimble, you will, I argue, be able to kick the recession rather than get kicked by the recession.

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, Year Up is focusing its half-year apprenticeships in those parts of the economy still standing, like Boston Children's Hospital.

Paul Scheib does the hiring at Children's.

PAUL SCHEIB, Boston Children's Hospital: Whenever we go through a hiring process, you really don't know who you're hiring until you have them in and you live with them for a while. So part of hiring through Year Up was we can actually take a test drive, see if these were the right type of kids and the right type of skills, and could they grow into what we were looking for?

PAUL SOLMAN: Scheib will take four more graduates of Year Up's current class, and one alum is among his best employees ever. Kweku Forstall runs training in Atlanta.

KWEKU FORSTALL: Now, actually, the value proposition is an even stronger one in these economic times, because what we're ultimately providing is entry-level temporary to permanent talent.

Companies that need flexibility in terms of their budgets, who are laying off individuals or downsizing, find our pool of talent to be just what the doctor ordered for these times.

PAUL SOLMAN: Are you cheaper?

KWEKU FORSTALL: Yes, we are, cheaper than full-time salaried employees with benefits.

Rising enthusiasm among students

PAUL SOLMAN: Meanwhile, Year Up's students sound less daunted by the downturn than many of us and more motivated. Greg Hereford.

GREG HEREFORD, Year Up student: Yes, I'm definitely more motivated than I think that somebody coming in on an entry level that's coming from a regular college or anything like that is, because this program pushes you and makes you realize that your potential is, like, greater than your expectations, greater than anybody else's expectations.

TEACHER: Continue that throughout the whole next six months when you're on your apprenticeship, as well, I think you're going to rule the world.

PAUL SOLMAN: Year Up optimism not only serves the students well, but through them perhaps may even help re-energize a depressed economy.

There's one last Year Up advantage in hard times. The Obama priority is to put people to work fast. But, says Shawn Bohen, Year Up's director of strategic growth, we don't want make-work, but a productive jobs program.

SHAWN BOHEN, strategic growth director, Year Up: And that's not about, you know, moving a rock from here to here. That's actually about being able to participate.

And I think the main thing that we're clear about certainly for the young adults we serve, but frankly for the whole working population, is that continuing to remain competitive as a worker is about being able to learn and stay up on 21st-century skills.

And so we've figured out how to do this with this population of young adults, and I think we probably have some things to share about how we could do it with lots of different kinds of people.

PAUL SOLMAN: Some things to share that could make Year Up a part of the coming job initiative in a job-challenged America.