07/10/2012 05:05 pm ET Updated Sep 09, 2012

'Year Up Chicago' Gives Disadvantaged Youth a Chance to Work

Sitting down with Year Up Chicago's executive director Alan Anderson, one can immediately understand how his program is on track to graduate its 70th student. Year Up, which teaches disadvantaged high school graduates ages 18 to 24 technological skills and matches them with potential employers, has been in Chicago since the fall of 2010 and Anderson has been at the helm of it. He is both enthusiastic about the mission of the organization and confident in the ability of his charges. The former after-school tutor, Motorola employee and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) reformer exudes the hope imbuing his mission to change young people's lives.

"It's been two-plus years of excitement for me, being able to watch it grow and become successful here in Chicago," he says. He also doesn't shy away from the passion he feels for his students: "We as an organization say, 'We're going to hold you to a higher standard because we love you and we believe that you can actually achieve it,'" he says. "And our students rise to that opportunity."

For too many young people from disadvantaged areas, a good paying job is a will-o'-the-wisp hope that often doesn't materialize. A high school diploma is a necessity for a decent job and though the graduation rate is improving in CPS, it is still only 60 percent. Even those with a high school diploma who pursue education in community colleges face stark odds, as only one in five graduate with an associate's degree in three years in Illinois. Even more frightening is that some economists believe that in a future dominated by automated tasks, job growth will take place only for occupations that either require little skill and low levels of education or high skill and high levels of education. The opportunities for a middle class life could be harder to get, they reason.

Yet Anderson and the staff at the program have a different understanding and take a different tack. They concur with the Brookings Institution that middle skill jobs, which make up the majority of jobs today, will continue to grow. These middle-skill jobs are the fundamental focus of their program, which is part of a national network that has been teaching hands-on skills for 12 years.

"When you look at the marketplace," Anderson says, "there's a perceived gap that's going to grow over the next decade of middle-skill labor, so no more than a high school diploma, less than a four-year degree. And so fields like IT have the need for talent who can ultimately fill that gap." Such IT jobs include desktop support, troubleshooting and at the higher end, server maintenance and software programing. The Brookings Institution estimates that the economy will add 1 million jobs for computer specialists by 2020 (and that middle-skilled jobs will account for about half of all future jobs). Its researchers see a path for disadvantaged students to take advantage of the job growth. The researchers write, "For at-risk youth -- especially those in school -- it means expanding opportunities for high-quality career and technical education."

Year Up Chicago does just that. They provide cash stipends for the lucky entrants (80 were accepted for their upcoming class out of 1,200 who applied) who take five months of classes in computer information systems, college success and cooperative experiences that are accredited by Harold Washington Community College. Then they embark on a six-month internship with a major corporation, such as Accenture, J.P. Morgan Chase and Citadel, among other partners. Throughout the process, staff provide management through recruitment caseworkers and site leaders who help students with deadlines and soft professional skills, and also show the students places in Chicago they might not have been exposed to. The program lasts for one year, hence its name.

Recruiters look for students with a high school diploma or G.E.D. who are highly motivated but have two to three barriers to their goals to pursue education and gain a foothold in the middle class, such as poor housing, the need for child care or financial issues. "When you look at most of our students, they either come from failing communities, failing school systems, failing family networks," Anderson says. "All these lead to a level of low expectations that keeps our students from ultimately achieving what they could achieve if you held them to a higher standard."

They come from areas with a high percentage of violence," Anderson says, "but our students matriculate and go back and keep pulling that other person to say, 'Hey, you know what, maybe you should get away from that, come with me downtown, come see what this thing is about, Year Up.' They're great ambassadors.

With ambitious efforts to scale up the program at a national level to reach 100,000 students a year for 10 years, Year Up's model could have substantial effects on destitute neighborhoods.

Year Up Chicago has been successful in meeting its goals that 85 percent of graduates from the program have a livable wage and that at least 75 percent are working. The staff encourage students to go on to complete their associate's degree (Year Up provides the first 18 credits of the degree that usually takes 60 credits to complete) or eventually bachelor's degree or beyond.

The students at Year Up Chicago are full of as much verve as their program's head. Twenty-year-old Christian Delgado is interested in an advertising career and is about to start his internship, though he isn't sure where he will be placed. "It's a good foot in the door for the downtown corporate world," he says. He sees the program as a type of community. "We're basically like a family now," he says. "I'm close to these guys."

Anastasia Young, 18, from Woodlawn, is on the student admissions committee and once lived in downstate Rantoul, Ill. She loves the program and notes the contrast with life downstate:

I like to be busy -- to be on the move -- so I like getting up every morning, commuting downtown. I'm on the train with other business people, we're reading newspapers, listening to our music, I'm studying.

She wants to continue on after the program to get her degree in computer science.

Anderson glows about his students and their potential:

We're like, 'Hey, here's another source.' They have high employer satisfaction. Ninety-seven percent of our students receive a 'meet' or 'exceed' on their final evaluation. They have a desire and they have skill. They just look different. They're not from the typical universities or colleges. They just have a different background. But they can do the job. Try it out. And so what we've found is that there are certain companies who are so excited that they've said, 'This is a source that we should be leveraging...' This is for the (companies) that are smart enough to figure this out.