There can often be this expectation for teenagers: once they turn 16, it’s time to get a job, join the workforce and then work toward going to college or starting a career.
But, United Way of Greater Atlanta found this wasn’t the case for much of the young adults in the Atlanta area age 16-24. There was a program established prior to 2013 called “Opportunity Youth,” which targeted this demographic. It was designed to reach those youth 16-24 who are not enrolled in school or participating in the labor market.
YouthWorks started in 2017 as an expansion of this program. It is a comprehensive workforce development initiative that now helps 15 to 24-year-olds start on the pathway to a sustainable career.
“This really started several years ago when we got funding from the Aspen Institute to build a collaborative around Opportunity Youth,” said Tricia Crossman, United Way’s senior director of Youth Development. “We saw that Atlanta doesn’t have the youth workforce development that other cities have, and so in the past year we expanded the work to include teens in our low Child Well-Being areas to provide work experience and job readiness training. In addition to focusing on disconnected young adults, we wanted to provide targeted supports to young people who may be at risk of disconnecting as well.”
YouthWorks does this by focusing on employment and education pathways. Crossman said United Way partnered with local high schools and organizations to help these students find a career path, and they helped connect them with technical colleges.
YouthWorks connects young people to needed supports including social services, mental health services and transportation—they also provide business clothing for students, so they could be prepared for interviews.
“We provide support for students with small financial barriers to stay in school helping to support those young people, so they never drop out,” Crossman said. “We’re trying to address those areas while we’re also speaking to employers about helping those young people start on a career path.”
Crossman said employers are saying there’s a need for skilled workers, so the focus turns toward providing training for those students.
“We’re asking them to be a part of the solution to help build that pipeline with positions they haven’t considered before or engagement they haven’t provided before,” she said. “We need to get these young people the skills needed to fill the positions that area companies have, and we can’t do that independent of those companies.”
YouthWorks has partnered with companies to give students the opportunity to intern in different career fields that they may not have previously had access to. These programs are geared toward communities with a lower child well-being score.
At Banneker High School, students are participating in a Workforce Development program that allows them to participate in internships that give students training so they can receive credentials that help them in the next stage of life following graduation.
Dorothy Walter, workforce development coordinator at Banneker High School, said the program was made possible through partnership with Goodwill and United Way of Greater Atlanta.
In the program last year, 50 seniors were selected for the program to receive employability training, Walter says.
“Last year, it was a very, very successful program,” Walter said. “Out of the 50 [seniors] who participated over the life of the program last year, 44 of those went on to four-year colleges.”
Walter told stories of employers who went the extra mile for students in need, as well. She spoke of one student who had dreams of becoming a fireman since he was 6 years old, and the fire chief at the Atlanta Fire Department who made it possible for him.
There was one student who received training in designing engines for electric cars, a student who had always dreamed of becoming a mortuary scientist, and there were three interns who received training to become licensed realtors.
The program is in its second year, Walter said. They take 25 students per semester. The program is advertised for students at the beginning of each school year.
“Once school has started, we have massive interviews,” Walter said. “They come dressed and with a resume and they bring us their best. Last year, 161 students interviewed for 50 slots. The acceptance into the program is based on need and the availability for the program to fit it into their schedule.”
Walter was extremely appreciative of these businesses and their willingness to train students for the workforce. She said in an appreciation awards banquet last year, tears began to flow from students and employers who were impacted by the program.
“Our community has opened its doors overwhelmingly,” Walter said. “I was really in awe of the number of companies who allowed our students to come in and train.”
The program has generated a lot of interest around the school, Walter said. She said there is a grade requirement for participation in the program, and so it has acted as a motivator for students who want to participate but are not yet able to.
“The students really like the program,” Walter said. “Some of the students are not on track, but those are the ones who are in my office letting me see their progress reports each week. I’m happy this is serving as a motivator. I’ve seen students before who were not on track and were able to turn their lives around.”
For young people living in an area where the child well-being is low, access to programs such as these are harder to come by, Crossman says. This is a program that aims to do more than just the status quo.
“There are open jobs and people looking for employment, but if the people looking for employment don’t have the skillset needed, then we need to get them those skills,” Crossman said. “We can’t do that independent of those companies. For young people in low child well-being areas, there is less access to programs that can help them get there.
“If the regular status quo will leave them with fewer choices, then we need to change that.”
For more information on YouthWorks, click here.