THE BLOG
08/16/2011 05:51 pm ET | Updated Oct 16, 2011

Opening Doors and Closing the Gap: Workforce Development for Urban Youth

Last week, Mayor Bloomberg announced a major new initiative to address the chronic and blatant disparities between thousands of African American and Latino young men and their peers in New York City. A New York City-commissioned study that drove recommendations for the initiative found that across the five boroughs, African American and Latino men ages 18 to 24 have a poverty rate that is 50% higher than white and Asian young men, and an unemployment rate that is 60% higher.

Obviously, this is a worthy effort -- especially during these turbulent economic times when the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted only about 25% of all teens ages 16-19 would be able to find a job this summer -- the lowest rate since the government began tracking the statistics in the 1940s.

We know that many of these young men attended, or attend, urban public schools. And in recent years, there has been much debate about what our schools should be doing to reduce the racial achievement gap in education. Yet, as the Mayor's initiative demonstrates, schools are just one critical key to success.

At PENCIL, we've been working to expand employment opportunities for underserved young people through the Fellows Program, our own summer internship program designed solely for NYC public high school students. A sizable percentage of the students in the Fellows program are African American and Latino young men. What we've discovered is that many of the challenges confronting African American and Latino young men are not unique to them but are also experienced by the vast majority of urban public school students. Through the Fellows Program, we've placed nearly 500 students in paid internships over the past four years, but without the relationships we have with their host companies, only a handful would have gotten the opportunity. Why?

1. Networking: Too many urban public school students lack access to the professional networks that are necessary to find jobs. One major company with whom we work said 30% of new employees are found through referrals, which puts students without these references at a distinct disadvantage. Most of our Fellows aren't born into a professional network, don't have access to one, and don't yet understand the importance of networking. So as part of their training, we teach that whether one is unemployed, seeking a new job or promotion, or building a reputation at a company, networking is one of the most important weapons in their arsenal. We then teach our Fellows some basic skills behind networking effectively.

2. Professional Brand: If a student is fortunate to land a coveted interview, do they know what to do with it? Do they know how to answer the question, "Tell me about yourself. Why should we hire you?" Do they know how to present themselves, to arrive well before the scheduled meeting time, to dress appropriately for the place of business, to give a firm handshake, to make eye contact, and speak with confidence? Too often the answer to these questions is no -- and so often, the interview ended before it began.

Developing a "professional brand" begins with a personal statement -- an elevator pitch, if you will -- summarizing an individual's education, professional experience, skills, interests, and best qualities. And our Fellows learn that it's not just what they say, but how they say it -- with confidence, with sincerity, and with a professional presentation -- that will land them the job.

3. Attitude: An internship is an audition. We teach our Fellows that simply "punching the clock" is a road to failure. Rather, show an eagerness to learn, a desire to work hard, and a willingness to step up during times of crisis. And we remind our students that there are parts of the job they will love, and parts they could do without. But they are all worth learning about, and must all be done with equal dedication.

Here's the great news: given the chance, all of the students in our Fellows Program learn -- and shine. The vast majority of participants report the Program has a significant impact on their lives, improving their feelings of self-efficacy and influencing their future career plans. And, even better, they are outstanding employees.

Since we launched the Program, companies that were once reluctant to hire high school students have come back, year after year, many have taken on more student interns each year, and dozens of Fellows have been asked to stay on as part-time employees after their internships have ended. Already this summer, at least three Fellows have turned their internships into ongoing jobs.

Many more students can do that, too, given the chance. So as the Mayor launches this laudable effort, we know he can't do it alone; we'll need the business community to do its part, as well. First step: open your doors to an unorthodox candidate, and give them the chance to shine by being part of a program like PENCIL Fellows. And then invest in the students while you have them. It may take some work to bring them up to speed on workplace skills and rules, but it's an investment worth making.