Learning to Mature

Summer youth employment program brings jobs, knowledge

While temperatures were shattering records, culminating in a blistering 108 degree day last July, nearly 700 young men and women in Southwest Washington stepped out into the oppressive heat to do something that seemed unimaginable just months before: go to work.

Focusing on low-income 14 to 24 year-olds, all with various "barriers to employment," the Summer Youth Employment Program unrolled across the country, funded by $1.2 billion in federal recovery assistance and employing nearly 280,000 young people.

The Southwest Washington Workforce Development Council, which received $2.2 million, spearheaded the local effort, using real world experience and weekly classes in an attempt to transform the Gen-Y juveniles into functioning members of the workforce.

Over the last year, as unemployment in Clark County rocketed into the double digits, entry-level jobs on which unskilled youths rely were suddenly being deluged by older, more experienced applicants who had been laid off, according to Brandi Stewart-Wood, director of strategic initiatives with the SWWDC.

The people targeted for the program were a motley crew of low-income young people – 12 percent of the participants were homeless, 17 percent were drop-outs, 10 percent were involved in court proceedings and 23 percent had some kind of disability. Most were without any real work experience, and many came from "chaotic" families, according to Stewart-Wood.

Through a competitive bid process, the SWWDC found seven local employment service providers to assist in finding participants and worksites which would fit its stringent program guidelines, including safety and time requirements, as well as acting as mentors to employees. The service providers also have to screen potential youth, collect eligibility documentation and create personalized, achievable work-readiness goals for each young person, according to Stewart-Wood.

Last spring and summer, the entire screening process was packed into only three months, with funds arriving in April and the program running July and August, with participants working three eight-hour days a week for employers such as the American Red Cross, C-Tran and the Cowlitz Indian Tribe.

Many of those temporary positions netted participants a permanent job which may have not been attainable otherwise, according to Stewart-Wood.

"Many of the kids were hired at jobs that normally wouldn't hire someone with a history or drug problems, or someone who had been through the court system. Some of the participants were homeless," she said.

Established after World War II, Employer's Overload was founded by an accountant named R.B. Miller who was influential in the creation of employment agencies. EO opened a Vancouver branch in 1978, and since then have been meeting local businesses needs for both temporary and seasonal positions.

Each of the seven employment services concocted their own formula to match the summer employment program's system, including EO in Vancouver. According to EO president Tom Szambelan, the goal was more than just getting young people badly-needed income, but also to "teach them to fish."

"We wanted to focus on teaching them work readiness, so that after the program was over they could succeed in their life," he said.

Stewart-Wood agreed.

"Besides that weekly paycheck, we hoped the participants would walk away with a job or on the path to school – something better than when they started," she said.

For the 120 participants at EO, education took the form of weekly classes in Clark College's Penguin Union Building on what to expect in the real world. The lessons cover practical issues like how to dress for an interview, appropriate ringtones for your cell phone and what not to put on your Facebook page.

All told, 106,796 SWWDC hours were clocked in over 126 worksites, with $1.1 million in total wages pumped into the local economy. According to exit interviews and employer surveys, 93 percent of the youth made "work readiness gains."

"The goal was progress from where the participants started. We checked attendance, knowledge and a number of other areas," Szambelan said.

And just as the process was shutting down last fall, SWDCC made the announcement that enough funds were left in the program coffers to begin anew.  The new program, dubbed "Phase II," went to bid and was exclusively enacted locally through EO.

Phase II is less strictly regulated, and more specific. Whereas SYEP focused simply on gainful employment for participants, Phase II hooks up employees with jobs relating to their skills in the hopes of making connections which could end in long-term careers, according to Szambelan. Classes are smaller and students work around 408 hours over a 12-week period, compared to the 180 hours for the summer program.

Additionally, new legislation has been proposed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) to bring back SYEP in 2010, something that the participants of the first round are extremely excited about, according to Stewart-Wood.

"To have professionals teach and mentor our youth is an incredibly powerful way to ensure that this next generation is ready to work and is equipped to be competitive and successful," she said.