From the Field Toolbox: The Necessary Ingredients in a Youth Employment Mix

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As with almost every social undertaking, youth employment involves numerous stakeholders, each of which has its own perspective, goals, issues and vested interests. Youth, employers, parents, funders and the community at large can come together at the same table to participate in the adolescent work experience. That doesn’t mean they’ll all order from the same menu.

It’s difficult to prove what juvenile crime rates might be in the absence of a youth employment program. However, there seems to be evidence that keeping youth constructively occupied between the hours of 4 and 7 p.m. may reduce the window of opportunity for juvenile crime. This may apply especially to latch-key kids.

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There is more evidence to support the idea that holding juvenile offenders accountable within a restorative justice framework, through restitution and community service, does reduce recidivism. It may also reduce progression to more serious crimes, but this too is difficult to prove. Regardless, there is plenty of evidence to support the positive long- and short-term impacts on school attendance and performance, earlier and easier access to adult employment, plus fewer and shorter periods of adult un- and underemployment.

Patiently educating stakeholders to bring their expectations and commitments into alignment is at the very core of youth employment. There are numerous myths, misperceptions and real barriers that need to be identified, shared and accommodated, if not changed. Finding stakeholder commonalities while mediating differences is the true mission of the youth employment specialist.

Altruism Is Dead, Long Live PR

Employers have their own preferences, needs and objectives. Child and youth care professionals, seeking to serve both them and the other stakeholders in a communal setting, need creativity, patience, knowledge, attention to detail and outcomes, plus the critical judgement of a master chef.

Every employer appreciates the value of community goodwill. Much of advertising is spent telling consumers what good corporate citizens business are. Based on this message, it’s easy to take companies at their word. Right? Wrong!

Read between the lines. Many messages are filled with vague generalities and feel-good buzz words. Even where specific community projects are highlighted, they are often as much “sizzle” as substance. Close examination may show that these endeavors are usually noncontroversial (“safe”), popular, widely supported, carry high public visibility and generate warm positive outcomes. But exactly how much meat is really on those ribs?

Put this up against the realities of disadvantaged youth, especially juvenile offenders, and see how the business public relations message fits. Like it or not, it is unwise to expect businesses to do the right thing just because there is a need. Appealing to corporate altruism to help “fix” disadvantaged youth is a message doomed to fail.

Even where companies offer a helping hand through youth employment, they usually expect to participate in a rags-to-riches experience with a big feel-good payoff, with highly visible publicity. This isn’t cynicism, it’s reality. Companies are in business to minimize risk and maximize gain. Get employers’ attention by showing how they gain through youth employment and they’ll be a receptive audience.

Surprisingly perhaps, small businesses, even with their limited staff and lean budgets, seem to make a more concrete effort to respond to the immediate needs of their communities. This may seem counter-intuitive to John Q. Public, but youth employment staff would be wise to give special attention to this potential ally.

Sometimes in business, the deeper the pockets the bigger the barriers to youth employment. It might even surprise business managers to find out that their company probably wastes more money annually on copy paper than it would cost to employ a part-time youth for the summer at minimum wage.

Companies of all sizes are terrified of running afoul of minor labor law violations. Fines can run into the thousands of dollars. Keeping youth safe, even in mundane jobs, is another primary concern. Finding age-appropriate tasks and proper supervision can pose challenges in an otherwise adult work environment. Rather than create empty “make-work” experiences, responsible companies take on real risks when they assign youth real work responsibilities. While youth and parents might expect to find employment in a bank or an office, for example, these 9-to-5 businesses are not suitable for after-school employment.

People who have spent almost all their careers working in the nonprofit sector may have a poor understanding of the day-to-day challenges of running a for-profit business. Meeting payroll week after week, staving off competition, staying on the edge of technological innovation and ending up in the black at the end of the year only scratch the surface of business challenges.

Likewise, for-profit owners and managers often struggle to run or relate to nonprofits. Reimbursement rates that barely cover costs, customers who have no say in the services they receive, budgets dictated by unfunded government mandates, fickle funders and media misrepresentations, plus unrealistic service outcomes are all part of the daily nonprofit grind.

Recent events have demonstrated how even a titan of business can struggle to make a successful transition in nonprofit governmental administration.

The bottom line for youth employment managers is that a strong knowledge of the “sweet and savory” of the business continuum is an absolute prerequisite in attracting business participants. Unrealistic expectations, outdated stereotypes and unfounded assumptions will only lead to wasted resources, staff frustration and stakeholder disillusionment.

In addition to in-house work teams for preteens and first-time employed youth, there are two other options, exclusively for older teens, that can help youth build a consistent work history, quality references and real-world job skills. All three of these will be critical in transitioning into adult full-time employment.

Sometimes called “sponsored jobs,” exclusive prearranged employer-paid jobs are very time-consuming to create. They are usually only suitable for summer employment. However, initiating business contacts with potential employers is an ideal task for board directors, many of whom are business owners or in upper management. This is also a consistent fit with their fundraising and public relations activities.

Personal relationships can prove very effective in creating nontraditional youth employment openings. Be aware, however, these can also disappear the minute a managerial contact gets promoted or leaves the company. And watch out for human resource departments and labor unions; they’ll often undermine even the most committed CEO. Nonetheless, the status and quality experience of working in a name-brand company are worth the time-consuming development efforts.

Less demanding and political are what could be called “open-market” jobs. As the name implies, these are jobs that are open to both adult and youth applicants. Perhaps surprisingly, youth can be very competitive with adults for these positions. Teens are often available when adults have family or other responsibilities.

Adolescents may also have technical skills that match or surpass those of older workers. Although limited in total hours, age and time of day by minor labor law, the vast majority of food service, retail and customer service positions easily fit within these restrictions.

Meanwhile, staff can supply the training, logistics, structure, information and secondary supervision to support both employers and youth. Agency-issued work permits and minor labor law information dissemination are critical aids for employers. Weekly check-ins with supervisors and youth help troubleshoot difficulties, like punctual attendance, before they lead to termination.

Training youth in the soft skills of teamwork, personal responsibility and appropriate decision-making will reap a lifetime of benefits. A prompt and effective response to personal challenges in a teen’s school or home life is an absolute must. Getting parental buy-in and support is also essential. Awards and recognition for solid work performance builds positive peer influence and personal self-esteem. Likewise, youth employment programs need to recognize, validate and extol employers for their support in much the same way.

Accessibility, age appropriateness, youth maturity, soft skill training, logistical, morale and technical support, plus recognition for achievement and support must all be standard fare on any youth employment menu. Feature these necessary basics and stakeholders will be drawn together for a fulfilling, harmonious and transformative youth employment experience.

Michael Mitchell is a first vice president, online publications editor and membership services chair for the Association for Child and Youth Care Practice. He has worked with 2,000-plus juvenile court-supervised, at-risk, special ed teens and adolescents with clinical mental health issues and holds a master's degree in secondary education. He has won numerous awards for his work with youth, a major percentage of which were youth of color. Write to him atpropman46@gmail.com.

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