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by Jack Calhoun

On Oct. 13, 2015, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) and Development Services Group, Inc. conducted a Webinar on preventing youth violence and building resilience through employment.

Cities participating in OJJDP's three Youth Violence Prevention Programs—the National Forum, Community-Based Violence Prevention (CBVP), and Defending Childhood—wrestle with the widespread challenge of connecting youth to the community, school, and jobs. During the October Webinar, three national experts addressed job training retention from three different angles, thus giving the audience a full picture of the struggles and promises of employment strategies for those with few skills, uncertain work habits, and little or no support.

Dorothy Stoneman, founder and president of YouthBuild USA, spoke passionately about the organization, which was authorized as a federal program in 1992 and has been managed by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) since 2006. Andy Moore, director of Youth and Young Adult Connections at the National League of Cities' Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, covered national trends and promising approaches on the local level. Jennifer Kemp, unit chief for DOL's Youth Policy and Performance, outlined federal policies supporting local efforts to bring disconnected youth into the labor market.

Stoneman's characterization of the YouthBuild initiative included terms such as "love, work, respect, community, knowledge, and responsibility" within the context of a "comprehensive youth and community development model." While her participants learn hard, practical skills in construction trades, they are also taught to be leaders, to give back, and to serve. During the Webinar, Kirsys Soto, a YouthBuild graduate, was asked to remark on the importance of the program's service component.

Soto recalled her many placements in foster care, on being unloved and rejected, and how YouthBuild gave her skills and completely changed her life. She expressed how personally rewarding it was to be one of the 10,000 students who build 1,000 units of affordable housing each year. So moved by the opportunity to help create a family's new home, Soto said "I knew I had something to give."

Almost all YouthBuild participants have been entangled in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, or both. But the model works—with youth who are jobless, poor, and without credentials, with individuals who have not been exposed to working adult role models. YouthBuild's outcomes are a testament to its sound design: Seventy-one percent of enrollees complete the program; 77 percent earn a high school diploma, GED, or industry-recognized credentials; and 61 percent are placed in college or jobs with an average hourly wage of about $9. After 1 year, recidivism drops to 10 percent, compared with 25 percent for nonparticipants. That rate continues to fall well under nonparticipant recidivism rates after 3 years (28 percent compared with 67 percent). YouthBuild's core principles—service, community building, leadership, skills acquisition, and adult support—can serve as basic building blocks for any local employment program.

Stoneman has been at this a long time, refining the model over the years. She started YouthBuild in 1978 in Harlem, N.Y., expanding it citywide, statewide, nationally, and now, internationally. Authorized and deemed a best practice by the DOL's Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act (WIOA) with an annual appropriation of $80 million, there are now 273 YouthBuild programs across the country.

YouthBuild's core purpose puts skills development into a much larger context—namely, to harness the positive energy of unemployed young adults to rebuild their communities and lives with a commitment to work, education, responsibility, and family. Over 21 years, 140,000 young people have dedicated themselves to breaking the cycle of poverty by building 30,000 units of affordable housing in more than 260 local communities.

Offering a Full Suite of Services
Identifying some of the most challenging issues raised by the new WIOA guidelines, Andy Moore talked about recruiting out-of-school youth, developing appropriate program models, finding enough organizations to deliver services, and meeting new performance requirements.

Moore noted a sole focus on jobs would have little chance of success with the out-of-school population. Given their often tangled histories of poor school attendance, lack of skills, and few—if any—role models, and even more complicated issues, like incarceration, drug abuse, and homelessness, Moore stressed the need for a "full suite of services."

This suite would include conjoining education and employment in one package (e.g., GED, community college, and apprenticeships). Moore emphasized the importance of education and credentials, as jobs can be fleeting; services that might include housing, counseling, and transportation; and connecting youth more deeply to the community and to their futures by opening a bank account and teaching them money management. He also discussed getting employers to think more broadly about their employees, especially those who come from difficult backgrounds.

Moore referenced numerous resources: the MDRC, Heartland Alliance, Grads of Life Partner Directory, National Youth Employment Coalition Promising and Effective Practices for Youth Programs, and for those returning from jail, the Center for Employment Opportunities.

What the New WIOA Guidelines Mean for Young Workers
Jennifer Kemp's presentation highlighted the new WIOA guidelines and how they make it easier for local program administrators to support individuals on the fringes of the labor market. The guidelines now include school dropouts, offenders, pregnant youth, homeless youth, youth in foster care, runaways, and English language learners. Kemp named WIOA's recently added program elements: financial literacy, entrepreneurial skills training, services that provide local labor market and employment information, activities that help youth transition to postsecondary education, and education offered concurrently with workforce preparation and training for a specific occupation. She and Stoneman encouraged links to other federal agencies that provide vocational rehabilitation and mentoring and to AmeriCorps, the Department of Education Green Building Funds, Community Development Block Grants, and local partners such as K–12 systems, community colleges, human service agencies with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, private foundations, and corporations. Stoneman noted some cities and states—e.g., Minnesota, Massachusetts, and New York City—fund YouthBuild directly.

Finally, Kemp provided an essential list of resources. One, "What's My Next Move," is a guide to career exploration that offers information about a particular field, including required credentials, average salary, and job availability. Other WIOA resources provide links to local workforce investment act boards, details on funding access, and links to partner agencies:

Department of Labor
  • WIOA Resource Page
  • WIOA Dedicated Email

  • Department of Education
  • Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education WIOA Resource Page
  • Special Education and Rehabilitative Services WIOA Resource Page