One of the most consistent recommendations to come out of report after report on fatal confrontations between youth and law enforcement has been the need for jobs. Increasing both adult and youth employment options is seen as essential to the mix of solutions needed to stabilize communities most at risk of violent encounters with police.
An entire book can be written on the long- and short-term benefits of getting adolescents into the workplace as soon as possible. Those working in the juvenile justice system know well that youth employment can help close the window of opportunity (between 4 and 7 p.m.), through which teens can slip into mischievous, anti-social and criminal activities.
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Whether as a preventative or as remediation, constructive engagement through work activities connects kids to community, thereby addressing another cause of juvenile crime and gang recruitment.
However, actually setting up and running a successful youth employment program is an undertaking rife with challenges, which can turn into barriers if not handled knowledgeably. Being able to deal with the major misperceptions of the primary stakeholders can make or break the best of youth employment efforts.
Coordinating youth, parents, employers, funders and community to achieve positive outcomes is not a task for amateurs. A strong general understanding of employment dynamics is the essential key to success. It all begins with a focus on the youth themselves.
One size does not fit all
Is every teen ready, willing and able to thrive in the commercial workplace? No. While it’s easy to look at adolescents as a homogenous group, in actuality they are as diverse as any adult demographic. Anyone who has worked with this population for any length of time knows what a difference just one year can make in the maturity of a young individual.
Generally speaking, 14- and 15-year-olds (not to mention preteens and ’tweens) often lack the maturity and motivation to consistently meet workplace responsibilities. Those 16 and 17 years old, however, perhaps sensing the approaching cusp of adulthood, seem to take better advantage of commercial job opportunities. Likewise, 18- to 21-year-olds have their own set of unique assets and challenges, seeing as brain development doesn’t reach full maturity until about 25 years of age.
[Juvenile court orders are of two kinds; community service and restitution. For those too young to work or where there is no monetary damage, community services is often levied. In cases involving monetary loss, offenders are expected to repay their victims. Subsidized work teams, operating on the principle of restorative justice, are effective in helping offenders meet their obligation to the court, victims and the community.]
Work teams are an especially good option for youth under juvenile court delinquency and truancy petitions plus consent decrees. Unmet community service and restitution orders fail to hold early offenders accountable for their behaviors, thereby encouraging progression to more serious offenses and stiffer penalties.
This damages the credibility of the juvenile justice system and, indirectly, that of the whole community. Examine the personal histories of youth waived into adult court and there is often a trail of unaddressed misdeeds leading to a serious dead end.
Whatever you call it, it’s still work
One way to address the needs of this diverse population is to offer age-appropriate work options.
Work teams subsidized through government and private grants, structured around community-based service learning, have proven to be an effective first step in introducing the basic expectations of the workplace. The earnings, usually at the prevailing youth minimum wage, go to the court to settle their monetary obligation.
Ideal for those under juvenile court petitions or receiving clinical mental health services, work teams also offer pre- and early teens a meaningful opportunity to assess the needs of their community and take direct action to address them.
Whether it’s trash pickup, snow removal or a food drive, work teams can have high public visibility, immediate tangible returns and a formative impact on youth value systems. This also creates a political synergy, which attracts funding and in-kind donations. Youth in turn, learn the ins and outs of teamwork and constructive group dynamics. This option can be especially attractive to those turned off by fast-food venues, which are often their only recourse at this age
Train for the transition
Graduating successful youth to the commercial employment tier, as they come of age, involves more than a resume and a work permit. Studies have shown that deficits in effective people skills get more employees fired than any other single factor.
Being able to interact smoothly with the boss, co-workers and customers is at the heart of the modern workplace. Therefore, employment skills training must emphasize the make-or-break importance of the soft skills of personal accountability, conflict resolution and mature behavioral choices.
The workplace is not a venue for experimentation. Behavioral competencies need to be demonstrated in the classroom before they can be practiced on the job. Although controversial in some quarters, single-gender instruction, with a standardized curriculum, has been shown to reduce hormone-driven off-task behaviors and potentially improve learning retention.
One unsuccessful job placement can terminate an otherwise promising opportunity, which dozens of youth might otherwise access in the future. Conversely, developing a consistent work history and quality references can be the springboard to the next level of employment.
While some youth will choose to remain with their midlevel employment opportunity as they age, others may need or want to seek higher-paying and more interesting positions. Although free of the constraints of minor labor law, 18- to 21-year-olds must face the competitive qualifications asked of adult workers. Those without high school diplomas or shackled by adult criminal conviction records are seriously disadvantaged in getting hired for any but the most menial jobs for many years.
Buyers and sellers
Another misperception is that employment is embedded with its own motivation in the form of cash rewards. A financial pay-off can soon lose its luster if it’s not tied to the fulfillment of personal needs and goals. Some youth will demonstrate a well-formed work ethic (almost always an indicator of parental support), while others will have to be coached through their own personal cost-benefit analysis.
Giving young workers, especially in the first work tier, the opportunity to dissect their work experience is critical to successful buy-in and performance. Besides participating in identifying the work project itself, youth need a chance to preview and debrief each step of their experience.
Like any consumer, youth need and want a personal connection to the work experience being offered. Supplemented by awards for exemplary participation and performance, processing can encourage a sense of accomplishment and commitment. Done as a group, this builds team spirit and individual morale. Youth can also process their experience through journaling, oral presentations and in-school composition assignments. This is a critical process for juvenile offenders, who need to fully comprehend the connection between behaviors and outcomes; privileges and responsibilities.
By now it’s fairly easy to see that in youth employment, planning is everything. Good outcomes demand good inputs. This, combined with well-grounded expertise, will get most programs up, running and flying high. Be aware however, that there are no short-cuts. Once youth are engaged, attention can be directed toward working with funders, employers, parents and the community at large. But those are another whole dynamic, each worthy of its own article.
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 at firstname.lastname@example.org