More than the Bottom Line: How a Chamber of Commerce is Helping Foster Youth Succeed

Los Angeles foster youth receive tips on how to get a job at a recent training. Photo: Astor Morgan

In 2013, more than 20,000 teens and young adults in Los Angeles received services through Youth@Work’s Work-Based Learning Program, which provides youth in the county with subsidized work experiences and trainings.

But not many foster youth in L.A. County were included in that group, despite great need.

“Foster youth were really getting lost in the shuffle,” said Carrie Lemmon, director of the L.A. Compact project for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. That initiative is directed by UNITE-LA, the nonprofit arm of the chamber that helps promote partnerships and provides workforce development opportunities for youth in Los Angeles.

Part of the issues that inhibited foster youth from getting involved with the earn-and-learn program were a lack of awareness among social workers and providers, different applications for city and county jobs and the difficulty for many foster youth to obtain work permits and other eligibility documents.

But two years later, foster youth’s participation increased almost 10 times thanks to behind-the-scenes efforts between the chamber, all seven Los Angeles workforce development agencies and the county’s Department of Children and Families (DCFS). But a newly funded workforce pilot program has the potential to further widen access to work opportunities for youth in care.

Bringing foster youth to the forefront of the business world might not sound like what a Chamber of Commerce is meant to do. But according to David Rattray, the executive vice president for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, it’s part of a mission to do more than seek the bottom line.

“We see ourselves as trustees of the region,” Rattray said. “And our mission is to be the voice of business but also a force for good.”

Earlier this year, an Accelerator grant through the California State Workforce Development Board helped the City of Los Angeles Economic and Workforce Development Department, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce and OYC to develop a Foster Youth Accelerator Network in L.A. County, a new project that aims to streamline access to workforce development services for foster youth in the county.

The L.A. Chamber of Commerce helps facilitate employment opportunities, including this iFoster job training program for foster youth in August. Photo: Astor Morgan

Launching later this month, the program will dedicate 400 of the subsidized work experience slots directly to foster youth, open up eligibility requirements to former foster youth ages 21 to 24 and will use a single referral process to match youth based on their geography, eligibility and need for certain services.

Reworking the system so that foster youth are given dedicated slots was an important part of the increased participation. In 2013, only 81 foster youth were given subsidized work experiences. By 2017, that number increased to 772, according to the L.A. County Workforce Development, Aging and Community Services Department.

Foster youth will receive 400 dedicated slots this year, but Lemmon is hopeful that the county can find a long-term sustainable funding stream to enable many more foster youth to participate countywide.

Lemmon said they’ve also found foster youth have additional obstacles nobody was addressing that were precluding them from being able to compete with other low-income youth on an equal footing.

“Before that, foster youth were competing with other low-income youth who were vulnerable, but had families who were walking them through the door and answering their phones and getting all their documents in place for them,” Lemmon said.

“Most [foster] youth are going to hit a barrier and that barrier can spin them out into homelessness or could cause a loss of a job,” said Lauri Collier, director of the L.A. Opportunity Youth Collaborative, a group that represents transition-age foster youth. “They don’t have the ability or the support network to support them through the challenges of being 18 to 21.”

Beyond making systematic changes for foster youth, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce and OYC also helped streamline a confusing and chaotic process for both employers and DCFS. Both sides had specific needs, but employers and social workers didn’t have a realistic path to get connected in a way that provided results.

“It was really frustrating for social workers,” Lemmon said. “There were so many wrong doors to get their youth connected.”

Centralizing the work around DCFS will fix this problem and others, Lemmon said. It’ll also help them track how many youth weren’t able to participate in this kind of programming.

“The hardest part is not knowing how many youth may have tried to get access to work experience and then never got a response,” Lemmon said.

A lot of what the L.A. Chamber of Commerce does is behind the scenes by facilitating employment opportunities. Jenny Serrano, director of special projects at DCFS Youth Development Services Division, said social workers and youth might never know how the L.A. Chamber of Commerce’s partnerships are directly affecting them but its ability to “push politically and programmatically,” Serrano said, is “invaluable.”

“The chamber’s ability to be strategic, bring training and supportive dollars to the table to increase capacity for workforce providers to work better with our population and the countywide coordination efforts make workforce opportunities for our kids a priority,” Serrano said, in an email to The Chronicle of Social Change.

But it’s through these partnerships that the L.A. Chamber of Commerce gets to see their work come to light. Both the L.A. Chamber of Commerce and OYC partner with the national nonprofit iFoster.

The Truckee, Calif.-based iFoster is on the ground with the youth. It helps provide training and focuses on important aspects about keeping jobs; it also provides mock interviews and gives attendees a new outfit for job interviews. After the youth gets a job, the organization helps them get stable and reliable hours.

The L.A. Chamber of Commerce is hoping these kinds of programming and partnerships will inspire other Chamber of Commerce organizations around the nation.

Six years ago, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce established a partnership with 1,400 Chamber of Commerce members across the U.S. to teach and encourage other Chamber of Commerce organizations to focus on foster youth, too.

Rattray said the L.A. Chamber of Commerce probably works with foster youth more than any other chamber in the country, but he said it shouldn’t be surprising to start seeing other chambers around the country start to invest in programs for foster youth.

That’s all part of the chamber’s ongoing efforts to ensure the next generation of workers are ready for the job.

“As business leaders, we must be fully and directly engaged in developing the future workforce,” said Maria Salinas, president and CEO, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce. “This future workforce includes our foster youth.”

And, for the most part, the L.A. Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have an issue with getting partners or businesses to include foster youth.

“We’re the L.A. Chamber, they belong to us because they trust us. We advance their

interests,” Rattray, from L.A. Chamber of Commerce, said. “If you go through a trusted partner, you don’t have to sell something because it’s on us.”

Of course, Rattray said, they don’t have to just take their word for it, businesses also see it and hear about it from their peers in Los Angeles.

“Most young foster youth, most young men and women, made mistakes that are not unlike the mistakes most of us have made in our lives and they are entirely capable of being stars inside their companies,” Rattray said. “Once our companies see that, they get sold.”

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