Youth Employment Program helps young folks succeed

Securing employment that is both fulfilling and affords the financial basis for achieving one’s life goals is a challenge most people must address.

Some low-income young people have social, familial or other issues that make it especially difficult for them to find pathways to success. The Youth Employment Program was created to help these individuals overcome problems that – if left unaddressed – could inhibit their ability to become a productive part of the nation’s work force.

This federally funded program was made possible by the Workforce Investment Act of 1998. It is administered in the Hawkeye State by Iowa Workforce Development, an agency of the state government. In some parts of Iowa the function is handled by private sector agencies through contracts with IWD. In IWD Region 5 – Calhoun, Hamilton, Pocahontas, Webster and Wright counties – Children & Families of Iowa became the YEP contractor in October 2012. This relationship will initially run for three years.

The Youth Employment Program targets 14-to-21-year-olds youths to give them the skills, tools and knowledge to be successful in school and at work.

“All of our youths are low-income and … have some other barrier to employment, which might mean that they are basic-skills deficient, so they may read below the eighth-grade level, or they might be deficient in math or they might be in foster care,” said Teresa Larson-White, CFI’s program manager locally for YEP.

Bethany Frerichs, one of two case managers who are part of Larson-White’s Fort Dodge-based YEP team, elaborated on that point.

“They could be an offender, homeless, a runaway,” she said. “They could be behind in school credits. … They have to have a barrier – a barrier that can be documented.”

Larson-White and her colleagues assess the needs and talents of each young person selected for the program and develop a game plan to put that person on the road to educational and workplace success.

Larson-White said the assistance provided is wide-ranging and highly customized to each youth’s particular situation. Essentially, however, it involves helping the young person find and take advantage of educational opportunities and learn those job skills that will make them attractive to prospective employers.

“We try to prevent them from dropping out of high school,” Larson-White said, emphasizing one of the priorities for some of the program participants. “Our goal is to help them get the support services that they might need to stay in school, whether that’s tutoring, counseling.”

She said the plan for some youths might also involve dealing with mental health issues or learning disabilities.”

Helping young people understand how to acquire the education or training needed for good jobs is part of the mission.

“Some of the kids … might be the first ones in their family to even think about going to college,” Larson-White said. “There’s nobody ahead of them to show them the way. That’s part of what we do too, help them look beyond high school. Not just a job, but a career path.”

She stressed that exploring options other than college is very much part of the process.

“It might be a technical program,v” Larson-White said. “You don’t necessarily need a four-year education to make a good living. There are a lot of technical programs that are fairly short-term and there are jobs out there for them.”

Frerichs said some youths in the program need assistance learning how to evaluate and take advantage of educational options beyond high school.

“They don’t know how to start looking at colleges,” she said. “They don’t know how to pay for college. They don’t know how to apply for federal financial aid. We’re able to help them with that.”

For young folks who have not yet been part of the work force or who may be having problems keeping a job, YEP helps them discover how to navigate the employment world.

“Part of the plan is to do things like help them get work-readiness skills,” Larson-White said. “A lot of our kids have never had a job so they don’t know what it means to show up on time and get along with your co-workers. All those soft skills that a lot of us take for granted, but they haven’t been learned yet. We work with them on that.”

Placing program participants in jobs where they can both learn skills and demonstrate their talents is part of the strategy.

“We’re hoping to coordinate with some local employers to do work-experience type things – job shadowing, internships,” Larson-White said. “One of the things we can do if we put a kid on a work experience is we can pay their wages for a period of time.”

She said that can be a win both for the youth and the employer.

“(The employer) gets an opportunity to have a staff person that they aren’t paying for and they might decide at the end of that work experience that they want to hire full time,” Larson-White said.

The assistance YEP provides is designed to have a long-term impact on a youth’s success as an employee.

“It’s not a temporary summer job type thing,” Larson-White said. “This is not a six-month thing. They could be in our program for years. If we start with a kid that’s 14 now, we can maintain him in our program until he’s through college. They are in as long as they need us.”

How long a young person remains part of the program is related to having reached the goals set for that person.

“When they start the program, we sit down and set up their goal strategy,” Frerichs said, emphasizing the highly customized nature of the plan developed for each enrollee.

Larson-White said she the immediate goal is to enroll about 70 youths in the program. She said an additional priority is increasing the awareness on the part of employers of the benefits the program offers for them.

Larson-White said she has found involvement with YEP to be immensely satisfying.

“They are idealistic. Sometimes unrealistic,” she said about the youths she is assisting. “The biggest challenge is helping them think realistically about some of their goals. … This is a very hopeful type of work, because you are working with people who have hopes and dreams and you are trying to encourage hopes and dreams. That’s very positive.”

Frerichs said YEP is highly beneficial to those youths it serves.

“You can’t go wrong with this program,” she said. “It’s not going to cost them anything to be in the program as long as they are eligible. … It’s something to help you build those skills that you are going to need in the future. … There’s just no downside to the program.”