During a recent St. Anne’s meeting for pregnant and parenting teenagers in Los Angeles, seven students learned the difference between a resume and a cover letter.
It is a particularly important distinction for these young women, all between the ages of 15 and 18, who are trying to juggle parenting and high school with their eventual careers. The instructor taught over the whimpering and snacking of his students’ children, occasionally bouncing a baby on his knee as he spoke.
These meetings, which take place several times a week across L.A. County, are the site of a very particular education: career training for youth transitioning into life as adults. The majority of these students are system-involved, meaning they have experience in the foster care or juvenile justice systems. While most are enrolled in high school or working on their G.E.D., basic skills like writing cover letters or choosing appropriate interview attire are missing from California’s standard public school curriculum. Readiness for work is a skill set to be learned, and one Los Angeles initiative is making sure that the county’s system-involved youth learn it well.
Beginning in 2011, The Los Angeles Youth Network, Pacific Clinics, Hillsides, Hathaway-Sycamores Child and Family Services and lead agency St. Anne’s partnered on the Los Angeles Transition Age Youth Collaborative (TAY Collaborative) to help young people with their employment challenges. Since then, the program has evolved to include a collaboration with the Workplace Center of Columbia University on the creation of a career-preparedness curriculum specifically targeting the needs of an at-risk population.
Now, the program serves youth ages 15 to 26 across Los Angeles County. Each meeting’s participants differ (some are all men, some are all pregnant and parenting teens, some are all still in high school), but the curriculum is the same, focusing on how to get these young people prepared not only for work, but also for fulfilling careers.
According to Lauri Collier, the TAY Collaborative’s project manager and consultant, part of what makes the curriculum different from other, similar job-training programs is its adaptability to the needs of the youth participating. It can be compressed into a few weeks, or extended across a more detailed three- to six-month-long course.
In fact, a version of the curriculum was used in a recent five-week employment workshop called “The L.A. Jobs Initiative” for 54 of the county’s youth in transition. That workshop, in collaboration with transition-age youth resource centers and advocacy alliances like iFoster, the Los Angeles Opportunity Youth Collaborative and the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, also focused on part- and full-time opportunities in the grocery industry, as well as benefits, scholarships, and tuition reimbursement.
However, the program is designed to function beyond short-term workshops, and ultimately caters to individuals at any stage of transitioning out of the system and preparing for work; Collier says that the program’s specificity and reliance on scientific data further sets it apart.
“[The curriculum] acknowledges that traumas [affect] brain development, particularly the frontal lobe of the brain….Scientists have discovered, for instance, that children who are exposed to high levels of stress through abuse or neglect have trouble developing the circuitry in the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) necessary for controlling their impulses and solving challenges—the ‘executive functions’ that would help them succeed in adulthood,” she said.
These executive functions are utilized in the program’s 23-module curriculum, which covers everything from building a support network to resumes, cover letters to professional dress. However, the curriculum also relies heavily on the social connections that are such a crucial part of the working world.
“Peer support is a key element of the curriculum,” Collier said, “and [the curriculum] emphasizes the behavioral skills necessary to pursue a job search and cultivate a career in any discipline.”
This support is plainly visible in the brightly lit conference rooms that host these classes. At St. Anne’s, instructor and assistant director of family-based services Martin Rodriguez engages the students easily, asking about their high schools, internship hunts, children and even what they ate for lunch. At moments, the classroom seems like any other, with girls chatting to each other about their career fair plans and lamenting their lack of professional clothing. However, as vividly evidenced by their toddlers dropping cookie crumbs on their cover letter worksheets, these meetings present very particular challenges. Rodriguez pointed out the need for recalibrating what commitment and success look like in an environment with so many competing priorities.
“I think specifically with this population, a breakthrough has been that the same group continue to show up to class,” Rodriguez said. “They could have easily said ‘No, I’m not doing it’ and stopped coming. Many have. But this specific group has stuck through (even though they’d rather do other things) and have committed themselves to learning the material. They have insight into where they are at and know that they are committed to improving themselves, sometimes they just don’t know how. The [class] points them in the right direction.”
As this program is still relatively new, its facilitators have only recently begun getting feedback from participants who have aged out and actually pursued careers. However, participation in the program resulted in a significant jump in employment rates; those in competitive employment or internships increased from 23.6 percent to 71.2 percent, according to the TAY Collaborative’s data. Notably, even as the number of employed young adults grew, the number in school remained constant.
While the curriculum is still in development and currently only available to those involved in the partnership, the goal of Columbia University and its collaborators is to make it shareable, to be used to educate transition-age youth everywhere.
For now, however, Los Angeles will serve as a test county. Fluorescent-lit community center conference rooms will continue to fill weekly with young people, where the region’s future chefs and social workers will finally figure out what they want to do once they have emerged from the system.