The Youth Job Center job skills program is celebrating 20 years in Madison. The important local agency has trained over 2,000 high school-aged youth in the art of finding, securing, and keeping local paid employment and giving youngsters skills which they continue to use for a lifetime.
“I always say to people that what we do here is keep hope alive,” says Youth Job Center Program Coordinator Michael Mitchell in an interview with The Madison Times from his office on Atwood Ave. on Madison’s near east side. “When you look at what a lot of people are up against and how the system unwittingly conspires to keep them down and not to support them, it can be really tough for young people. When you look at how that snowballs and gets worse and worse the older they get — just look at our homeless situation here in Madison, for example — programs like this are very important early on.
“It’s an act of faith in the youth and an act of faith in our community when you invest in the next generation,” Mitchell adds. “The most important thing we can possibly do as adults is invest ourselves in the next generation. If they’re not thriving, we have no one to look to except ourselves.”
Started in 1993 as a summer-only job skills program for teens called Partners in Youth Employment (PYE), the Youth Job Center (YJC) now works with those youth seen as most needing of support in learning how to navigate today’s often complex and competitive process leading to paid employment.
“It started as a summer-only program back in 1993 and it has really grown,” says Mitchell, who has been with the program since the beginning. “Youth employment was the hot thing back then. That was back when Madison was so labor-poor that if you had a heartbeat, you had a job.”
YJC annually assists an average of 100 highly motivated youth, ages 14-17 years old, by providing individualized job-coach mentoring, hard and soft job skills instruction, resume creation, job lead development, application and interview problem solving. They also provide 12 weeks of on-going job performance monitoring and free work permits. They work with primarily court-supervised youth and work with all of Dane County. Sixty percent of these youth that YJC serves are youth of color.
“The economy has really been tight on us. Up until 2009, we were placing about two-thirds of our kids in jobs but now it’s much less,” Mitchell says. “Things are turning around, though, and I think it’s going to be a really good year for job placement.”
The YJC, part of Youth Services of Southern Wisconsin, Inc., helps youth with barriers to employment to acquire the skills and experience necessary to succeed in private sector jobs. YJC staff provide each youth with assistance in securing employment followed by 10 weeks of post-job placement coaching. This ongoing support increases the changes of youth having a successful employment experience.
The benefits of youth employment are immense. Youth employment provides structured and supervised productive activity, connects youth with positive adult role models, helps teens explore potential career interests, shapes lifelong work habits and a strong work ethic, provides legitimate income, and gives youth a sense of independence while boosting their self-esteem.
“When kids have a job, they begin to see the relevance of what they are learning in the classroom and how that applies in the real world — whether it’s people skills, whether it’s your math skills, whether it’s your communication skills,” Mitchell says.
And although the wages earned are nice, it’s about much more than the money. “It gives the kids a chance to focus [and ask] ‘do I want to do this particular job for the rest of my life?’” Mitchell says. “I have one kid who has been working at Hy-Vee [Grocery Store] and he just loves it. He’s a high school senior and he’s decided that he’s going to go to Madison College for business management and he’s going to take Hy-Vee’s store manager course. He wants to stay in it as a career.”
Almost 100 Dane County employers, both large and small, have utilized the YJC program to supply summer vacation coverage, meet peak seasonal staffing demands, cover evening and weekend adult staff backup, as well as a cost-effective recruitment tool for permanent entry-level positions following high school graduation or during college attendance.
Mitchell says that the younger kids can often be unfocused like 14 year olds tend to be. But often, by the time they reach 17 years old, the light goes on and they figure out what it’s all about.
“You’ll see a kid at 14 that you won’t recognize at 17. There can be so much of a difference,” Mitchell says. “I have faith in the process and that they will come out through on the other side. [You begin to see] that self-esteem thing ... that personal empowerment. The old expression that if you give a person a fish they will eat for today; teach them to fish and they will feed themselves for the rest of their life ...I strongly believe in that.
“So much of it is psychological. Kids are so fragile at that age,” Mitchell continues. “We really have to remember that there is a whole cohort of kids who really are seriously at risk of feeding the rail to jail, turning to drugs, developing mental health issues.”
Programs like the YJC are important in breaking the cycle of poverty that exists in some families.
“I just had a kid the other day that I was interviewing that told me he was going to be the first person in his immediate family to get a high school diploma,” Mitchell says. “We still have way too many kids who are sons and daughters of kids who have dropped out. But that’s the one thing that everybody here is working to do –— to break that generational cycle because women who have children as teenagers, their daughters are so much more likely to have a child themselves in their teenage years. You see it time after time after time.”
Over his 20 years at YJC, Mitchell has seen it all: kids struggling with drug-addicted parents, homelessness, poverty, sexual and emotional abuse. “When you hear some of the stories of what these children struggle with it’s quite astonishing,” he says. “But I always present the kids as just another high school kid. I don’t want to reinforce with some of them that what you’ve been labeled as is what you are. I spend about a third of my training talking to the kids about [having] a strong self-image and how to feel empowered.”
Over the years, the Youth Job Center has been asked to do much more with less. But Mitchell still finds his job to be extremely rewarding.
“When the kids come through here I want at some point —whether it happens in the short run or it happens in a few years — the kids to have seen their time with me as valuable,” Mitchell says. “Probably the highest compliment I ever got was when I sent a survey out at the end of the year and a young lady sent it back and said, ‘You know, I’ve been in the system since I was seven years old and I’ve always felt that the people who worked with me did so because they were paid to do so. You’re the first person who ever worked with me where I felt you did it because you cared.’
“I still get chills every time I remember that,” Mitchell adds. “That makes it all worthwhile. It’s the highest compliment I’ve been paid by anyone. That’s why I do this work.”
In celebration of its 20 years of service, YJC is seeking to expand its employer base by introducing even more businesses to the advantages of hiring highly motivated, well trained, and flexible youth. Many YJC graduates have skill sets equal to or exceeding those of some adults. Summer part-time positions are especially in demand.
“What I’m offering employers is motivated, supervised young people who in some cases have skill sets — with computers and the like — that are better than adults,” Mitchell says.
For more information about the Youth Job Center, call Mitchell at (608) 245-2550 ext.108 or e-mail Michael.Mitchell@youthsos.org.