By Saba Long
Youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II with only half of young people ages 16 to 24 holding jobs in 2011, according to a recent policy report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
Overall, 6.5 million people in that age group are both out of school and out of work, “statistics that suggest dire consequences for financial stability and employment prospects in that population,” according to the report.
The status quo pipeline from high school to college is a broken model for success, particularly for those not mentally prepared for the challenges of adulthood.
“These disconnected youth are overwhelmingly minorities from low-income families”, states Kweku Forstall, executive director of Year Up Atlanta — an organization focused on closing the opportunity divide for urban young adults. Headquartered in Boston with sites in Chicago, Seattle and other cities, the not-for-profit provides an intensive one-year information technology training and education program to prepare high school graduates and GED recipients for economic self-sufficiency.
In the first half of the program, participants are introduced to workplace fundamentals, customer service training, hardware and software systems and more. The final six months allows the students to put their rote knowledge to practice via IT-related internships at some of Atlanta’s most prestigious companies. A partnership with Atlanta Tech allows participants to earn college credit and receive industry recognized certifications.
Since opening in 2009, Year Up Atlanta accepts 160 students annually; a class of 80 students go through the program in March and September. Kendon Townsel, a member of the current class gave me a tour of their Midtown office. The “hall of fame” features photos each graduating class.
Townsel excitingly pointed to the bare space on the wall where his class, the seventh, will have their picture placed. We then moved on to the “bullpen”, an open office space where staff and program participants work. Inspirational quotes are placed on nearly every wall. One message placed outside a classroom states, “Make yourself promotable.”
It’s a message Townsel takes to heart when he walks into his internship at the Atlanta Federal Reserve. Urged by his mother to apply for Year Up, Townsel has flourished in the program. “I’ve learned how to be accountable for my actions and to communicate. If I know I may be late for work, I email my manager to let him know.”
Kweku Forstall calls the Year Up program a “vetted product” due to the demand on each participant for a high level of personal responsibility. Under his leadership, the organization has grown to 35 corporate partners in just four years including the Home Depot, Care, the Atlanta Fed, Newell Rubbermaid and Suntrust. These corporations have all hired interns with many being hired post-internship to fill entry level IT positions.
Another partner, Kaiser Permanente provides health insurance to program participants and their dependents for a mere $27 per month up to two years after graduating from the program. “Year Up is all about eliminating the social barriers and helping our students become world-class citizens,” noted Forstall. Studies show graduates earn up to thirty percent more annually than other youth coming from similar socioeconomic backgrounds.
Year Up Atlanta is empowering and challenging our region’s at-risk youth to realize a life of success and financial dignity is in their power. We need even more organizations and corporations tapping into the unrealized potential of our young people.