Tuesday morning I read about the new survey that found American adults have fallen behind on the skills needed to compete globally — literacy, math and tech skills. Not surprisingly, there was a big divide in the U.S. by class, a divide that is part of our shrinking class mobility.
There’s no excuse for the wasted human potential. By chance I’d planned a visit that morning to a place where young people are empowered to lift themselves to more productive and fulfilling lives, the Belltown offices of Year Up.
Year Up bridges gaps. It’s a young program that nurtures young people and places them in corporate jobs in eight urban areas across the country. Lisa Chin is the executive director for Year Up, Puget Sound, which is in its third year serving young people, 18-24, who have the talent and character to succeed, but who don’t have the money or the knowledge and connections that middle- and upper-income families pass on to their children.
Its philosophy is simple, but hard to put into practice, Chin told me. It’s high expectations plus a high level of support. It’s a program that both Republicans and Democrats can love, even these days. And it’s strength-based, she said: “We’re not going to give you a thing. You brought it with you. We’re just going to help you sharpen it.”
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It isn’t college, and it isn’t a job-training program, at least not the way we’re used to thinking of them. Students get skill development, college credits (through a partnership with Bellevue College) and corporate internships. Sometimes the structure of older institutions gets in the way of effectiveness by locking them into practices and rules that push them straight ahead when conditions around them turn this way or that.
Year Up adapts to the market by crafting its program to the needs of corporate partners and preparing students for real jobs that are waiting for them, while helping them grow their ability to make it in any professional environment.
It’s a mixing place where business people who have jobs to fill meet people who need jobs and are developing the skills to do them. More than 84 percent of graduates are employed or in school full time.
The guy who founded Year Up in Boston in 2000, Gerald Chertavian, started out at a Wall Street bank, then became a tech entrepreneur. Chertavian was a Big Brother to a David Heredia, a boy who lived in a rough New York City neighborhood. David didn’t fit stereotypes many people have. He was talented and motivated, but Chertavian knew his options would be limited without an introduction to the world outside his neighborhood. Chertavian provided that, and over the course of his own career he thought about all the other young people missing that help, so he created a Year Up.
Chin has her own background in the tech world, and as the grandchild of Chinese immigrants, a sense of the difficulty many families have navigating a world some take for granted. Starting early with Amazon.com gave her the financial freedom to follow her heart into Year Up.
“I’m not surprised by brown people doing well,” she said, but what surprised her was how much billionaire and millionaire entrepreneurs want to help if given a chance. (Year Up is not just for brown kids, but its student body reflects the concentration of poverty among minority populations.)
The majority of funding comes from corporate partners who each pay a fee for a number of students, and agree to internships for them. The internships are not charity, they are jobs that need filling with people who are ready to contribute immediately to corporations that range from Alaska Airlines to Wells Fargo, Microsoft to Safeco.
And beyond money, leading business people come and spend time with the students, sharing their experience and advice. That involvement helps the students believe in themselves.
The students get, not just jobs, but a start on careers, often with the companies where they do their internships. And Year Up places students only in jobs that pay a living wage, which for the last class was about $15.50 an hour.
Year Up takes young people who’ve graduated from high school or have a GED, and it pays them a stipend while they learn. At the start of the program participants sign a behavioral contract that is based on the behaviors required for success in the workplace, being late, for instance is a big no-no. There are significant penalties and little tolerance for falling short.
Because the students often have complicated lives, the program includes wraparound services to increase the chances of success, and Year Up works to make each class a community. One young woman told me: “I’ve made 80 best friends, and I have a chance to see what the world outside is like.”
Every student is assigned an adviser and a mentor and there are social workers on staff. Everyone is involved with students inside and outside of class. One student told me the instructors, “actually care for you. I’ve never been so passionate about school.”
Students are in the program for a year — six months of classes, followed by a six -month internship. Two groups of students go through the program each year, about 160 altogether. The need, of course, is far greater than that, which is why Year Up’s leaders hope their model will spread. They’ve been talking with community colleges about improving their ability to adapt to student needs.
There are many gaps left to fill, and as that study indicated, we aren’t getting it done. Year Up’s philosophy of high expectations and deep support isn’t revolutionary, it’s just sensible, something we need much more of.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org