My first job at a clothing store in my hometown of Omaha, Nebraska taught me a great deal about the workplace, much of which I still use as an adult. In the midst of folding clothes and ringing up customers were important life lessons about business strategy, customer service and working with a supervisor.
Those who understand the importance of workplace etiquette and have it nurtured by others at an early age have a distinct advantage in life. Many will go on to build networks that will ultimately help them become the next generation of coaches, educators and accountants. Unfortunately, with high unemployment rates it has become harder and harder for youth -- especially those from working class families -- to obtain these essential skills as teenagers. This gap creates a deficit that can quickly lead to a lifetime of employment challenges. Simply put, youth without the advantage of learning soft skills and building networks early can quickly find themselves relegated to lower wage jobs and that can mean the difference between the ability to provide for a family or not later in life.
There are a variety of programs in this country that aim to support youth with employment and skills training. Community efforts that are well-supervised and structured provide a solid work experience and skills that are essentially building the first rung in the ladder that leads to a productive and rewarding work life.
Here in Omaha, we've partnered with two other local foundations, the university and city government to support a summer employment program for youth ages 15-18 with no prior work experience who live in the most impoverished neighborhoods. Paid $7.25 per hour, these teens spend their days working at public parks and area nonprofits on a variety of projects. On Fridays of each week, they focus on learning soft skills from community leaders who volunteer their time.
At the end of summer the youth in this program walk away not only having received a steady paycheck but, perhaps more importantly, they now have a solid job reference and the kind of practical experience that can lead to employment in the traditional job market.
While programs like this may appear costly at the outset, the benefits are immeasurable and last a lifetime. Instead of spending the endless days of summer hanging out in the neighborhood or watching TV, these youth had the opportunity to engage in teamwork, learn practical soft skills and give back to their community. The challenge for America is how to scale up local programs like this to keep greater numbers of young people off of the street by providing meaningful opportunities that will then lead to even greater prospects in the future.
If our country's leaders are truly interested in giving less of a hand out and more of a hand up, youth employment is an exceptional starting place. Whether its folding clothes or flipping burgers, job opportunities at an early age build the foundation upon which whole careers are built.