People, Politics & Business

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How To Create Jobs For At-Risk Youth

CJ Westerberg, January 18, 2011 10:02 AM


How to Create Jobs for At-Risk Youth

by Edward DeJesus

As a youth workforce development professional for the past 20 years, I have rolled with the punches, promoting and carrying out the order of the day in the effort of preparing youth for the employment world. First, I was told to emphasize pre-employment work maturity competencies, then focus on high stakes high standard testing. From there I was prompted to help build an employer demand driven workforce system. And now -- Green jobs. At this stage, I have grown weary of following an uninformed agenda. How is it that those who don't work in the field can make up these terms for those who do, as if they have a better read on the young people we serve?

Let's keep it real for a minute. The young people I work with are facing challenges that reach far beyond the realm of pre-employment work maturity training. How do you hold youth accountable to high standards when they're dealing with the issues of a substandard living system? How exactly do you take the hardest to serve, most at-risk youth and turn them into Lockheed Martin's employee of the month six months later? I may be a lot of things, but magician is not one of those things, and it is that sort of unrealistic thinking that made the employer demand driven workforce system laughable. So now, I can't help but wonder what miracle they want me to perform with Green Jobs.

Now don't get me wrong - saving the planet and job creation is a good thing. Many of my colleagues would have me hog-tied and bull-whipped for speaking out against any job creation strategy that would put opportunity in the path of blue collar workers. And I agree. But I think there is something else that we are missing. We're missing the power and potential of Brown Jobs. What is a Brown Job? Brown Jobs reflect the ultimate in reciprocity. These are the jobs where the unemployed are trained to help the unemployed, the poor are given the opportunity to help the poor, and the undereducated are trained to educate the uneducated. These are the jobs where those that are forgotten and overlooked become the advocates for those who look exactly like they did once upon a time, with the most important aspect of their job is to make sure that they are not overlooked and undervalued again.

Community service, right? Wrong. Brown jobs are career tracked jobs that are tailor-made for the most disenfranchised. Do-good students from Ivy League Colleges and Universities looking to spruce up their resumes won't fit the bill because this type of work requires the ability to relate on a level that goes deeper then something you've "read about."

Why Brown jobs? Simply put, the hard work has to be done by someone and who better than the youth who have lived the struggle? After all, the real battle often takes place in the communities well after the hours of 9 to 5. Who better than youth to fit this bill? I often ask my listening audience: "Are you willing to miss your son's football game or your daughter's piano recital to meet with youth leaders at 10:00 pm to organize against the local employer who refuses to hire youth within the community?" Most teachers are ready to pack up shop by 3:00 pm, so who else is going to take on this task?

There are none better than the youth we serve to fill in these gaps. Why? Because they are already there! Any youth worker will tell you that our goal is to make sure that when youth leave our program, our program never leaves them. Let's put these youth to work in Brown jobs, uplifting their peers, community, and improving the educational and workforce system. The benefits for such an investment will be huge. The Brown Job Industry would fulfill the following:

• Sufficient job creation for poor unemployed youth.
• Youth entry-level positions that allow for rapid progression through a combination of experience, education, and on-the job training.
• Long-term benefit within affected communities and the society as a whole.

The only way to effectively reach the youth is with help from the youth.

This is a concept we as youth workers have embraced for several years. It only takes a couple of seconds of observation to see the enormity of the gap in communication between the average middle class educator and the young people they are supposed to assist. Instead of considering the road that has been traveled, many educators sit on their side of the table, judging the young person they see on the other side of the table. Before properly assessing the situation, acknowledging the challenges that were overcome up to that point, they'd rather declare that they don't have a chance. They'd rather assume there must be some sort of gang affiliation, or question why they dress or look the way they do.  What they need to say is, "I feel your struggle and I understand your hustle. Let us work together to find a way out of this mess."

Who understands youth better than youth?

Though I constantly hear clueless policymakers speak about reducing the drop-out rate, solving the unemployment rate, and getting more youth off the streets and into programs, they tend to get quiet when the question of where all these new teachers and support are coming from. They're talking a good game, but if you can't deliver, why waste the breath?

While the Bureau of Labor Statistics is unable to give a straight answer on green jobs creation, they sure know about the growth of human service occupations. With a 34% increase in the next few years, jobs will be plentiful. The number of social and human service assistants is projected to grow by nearly 34 percent between 2006 and 2016, which is much faster than the average for all occupations. Besides, aren't we the human service agencies that they are talking about? We are the ones that will need trained culturally competent workers? I think I got it right?. My target audience is not the dentists or computer engineers. My presentations are designed for the direct human service organizations or those pretending to be one. We are the ones who will be creating the jobs, and who better to hire than the young adults we love and transform our educational and human service system?


It is my opinion that more youth will find more successful, productive work in the human service system than in the green industry, which may lead to nothing more than moving shrubs and clearing bushes. The report, 7 Myths about Green Jobs published by the University of Illinois and Case Western University (link) challenges the efficacy of the Green Jobs Model. Programs already have a hard time getting youth off the streets and into the construction labor unions. What makes the Green Industry any different? I say let them work of us.

There's one caveat. It is our responsibility to make these jobs permanent and incorporate them into the matrix of our human service system. For the past three years, YDRF has pushed Peer Support Workers (PSWs) as an entry level entrée to the workforce development system. Groups of trained and paid youth with intent focus on program and peer development activity should adorn every school, GED class and Job Training program. The PSW will have a detailed career track to other positions in the organization and within the civil service system.

It should come to us as no surprise that if we keep using traditional measures to select teachers and youth workers, those who fall outside those traditional measures will be discounted and overlooked. Consequently the Ivy League student gets more opportunities to work in the hood than the committed, ex -offender who knows the error of his ways and is committed to making sure no one walks down that path.

If we continue to use these traditional measures for building the human service workforce, we will get the same substandard, lack-luster results we've always gotten, and we will deny the opportunity of a new breed of workers to carry the torch to take their peers into the 21st Century, fight injustice, and advocate for those who are undervalued and overlooked.

The new Brown economy is an economy of service to our fellow humans, the ones who need it most. It is ready and waiting for us to put it in force. Let's put those who've been there, back there and watch what happens.

Edward DeJesus, a Bronx native, has addressed more than 300 youth service organizations and community groups, as well as over 75,000 young adults. In addition to his direct service experience, DeJesus has blended practice with policy and advocacy by working with the National Youth Employment Coalition to conduct research on effective programs that help youth acquire and maintain jobs (PEPNet). Using his position as Chair of the New York City Youth Employment Consortium, he fought for job training opportunities for high school dropouts.   DeJesus is also the author of "'MAKiN' It." "MAKiN' It" draws on DeJesus' findings in interviews and group discussions with nearly 200 at-risk youth across the nation who beat the odds to get an education, obtain and retain a job and attend college, and is a best-seller with youth programs and educators across the nation. NPR's Tavis Smiley says: "DeJesus has found a way to reach youth with the message parents and educators have been trying to convey for years: education and work experience makes a big difference."   Website link here.

Previously published by The Daily Riff 3/1/10
  • Nice site... I just linked back to this from my site.

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