Making Money Moves: Tips for Foster Youth Entering the Workforce

Many nonprofit organizations and agencies across the country are thinking about the best way to increase employment opportunities and support to foster youth.

Counter-narratives are beginning to disrupt the assumptions and stereotypes that exist about foster youth. High-impact practices such as travel abroad programs, internships and community service opportunities are working to introduce more youth to opportunities in the workforce.

As a former foster youth and intern through the City of Los Angeles’ Hire LA Youth program, I can attest to some of the support that is available through its workforce development program.

Demontea Thompson (top row, far right), after he and his twin brother Demontray (third from left on top row) completed an internship with Wells Fargo through the Hire LA Program. Photo courtesy of Demontea Thompson.

While interning at Wells Fargo I was able to learn how to dress professionally, and the value of customer service. I also had hands on support with my resume and interviewing techniques.

For a growing number of youth graduating from four-year universities, the next step should be to begin establishing careers that can create a better future for them and their families. However, foster youth can sometimes be blindsided by the expectations and requirements of a professional work experience due to the lack of employee training and workforce development.

With the right preparation, foster youth can tap into the resiliency that they experienced in care to become ready to engage and serve in meaningful occupations. Here are a few tips to help foster youth succeed in the workplace.

Do Your Research

After graduating from the University of Southern California, I knew that I wanted to serve college students. Not just any college students, but those who shared my identity as low-income, first-generation students. I was asked by a mentor to submit an application to work at California State University, Los Angeles. I already knew interesting facts about the campus and the demographics of the student population. My mentor recommended that I research current articles and reports about the campus and the department to which I was applying. I took that advice and my preparedness helped me to ace the Skype interview and subsequently land the job.

When applying for jobs, do your research on businesses. The more you know about the mission, clients and weaknesses of companies, the better you can inform the employer about how to fill that gap with your talents. Ask current employees about the work-life balance, salaries (do more research online) and professional development opportunities that are available through the company.

Be True to Yourself

During my time at Wells Fargo through the Hire LA internship, I learned a pretty valuable lesson. I learned that my future was not destined to be in financial services like my twin brother; rather, my passion was in education. If you knew me back then, you would have thought that I was on my way to a career in business, but I re-evaluated my talents and discovered that my interests lay in educating, mentoring and advocating for youth to earn advanced degrees.

Many youth that I know work multiple jobs and are not able to invest 100 percent of their talent in just one. I say to them, keep grinding and be prepared to take advantage of growth opportunities when they appear.

Find Ways to Invest in You

As much as foster youth love to serve and give back to their companies and communities, we must be willing to enhance our own professional trajectories. I joined my first professional association when I was in college.

Today, I am aware that attending and presenting at conferences not only enhances my organization, but through networking, I also may find my next employer. I stay in touch with the people that I meet, just in case an opportunity presents itself that aligns with my mission.

Do not be afraid to invest in your own learning. Stephen Covey describes this as “sharpening your own saw, meaning take time to rejuvenate and maintain the sharpness of your mind, body and spirit. Taking time off for a spiritual retreat or vacation helps me to de-stress and practice self-care.

Foster Your Relationships

Researchers recently found that foster youth who age out of the system had higher academic and employment outcomes than those youth who reunify with their families. These findings suggest that foster youth often develop skills during their time in foster that can help them succeed, like building relationships with the people around them. I had two mentors in college who later became mothers to me. With them, I understand that family are the people we choose to have in our lives.

Thompson (left) with mentor, Sam Prater, during his time at California State University, Northridge. Photo courtesy of Demontea Thompson.

I have found that when foster youth have the opportunity to develop strong relationships at work, it can help them meet their professional goals. I forged relationships with experts in my field when I was a student; now those experts see me as a colleague and I am serving on committees and creating new initiatives with them.

I suggest that foster youth form similar relationships through work and professional associations by seeking mentors and advocates while employed in their first professional positions. They should continue a practice with which they began while in the system: build meaningful relationships with those around you. Reach out for help when you do not have the answers, and be resourceful when aiming for your goals.

Conflict in Paradise

Conflicts do arise on the job and how you handle them can make the difference in whether you succeed at work. Back when I was new to the workforce, I remember when I interrupted colleagues as they presented information to students. The colleagues were irritated, but my intention was to support them. Instead of feeling supported, they felt as if I was encroaching on their presentation. A mentor challenged me to mend this situation cordially. After we discussed better ways to support one other, I realized that speaking to my colleagues in front of the entire team was not productive. We since have worked hard on our communication and I am proud to say it is far better today than it was when we began.

My colleagues have a better understanding about my background now and assist me with developing soft skills. We have gotten to know one another outside of work, shared stories about our pasts, and worked through our differences.

In cases like these, learn to manage your relationship expectations. When opportunities for growth occurs in the workplace, hold yourself responsible for communicating your needs in order to ensure cordiality and professionalism. If that means cooling off or seeking wise counsel before engaging, do so.

Demontea Thompson (first row, second from leftt) with his first student staff as resident director of housing at California State University, Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of Demontea Thompson.

Change Gonna Come

Working full time has changed my life drastically. I am making a difference in the lives of scholars through programs and services aimed at helping foster youth and other first-generation students succeed. Additionally, I have begun to donate to organizations that align with my life’s mission. I have dedicated my life to serving people and spreading resources that change life trajectories.

Many foster youth have a servant heart; after aging out of care, they enter fields of service. Enrich your professional character by investing in others in and outside of your organization.

I am not alone when I tell you this: foster youth are succeeding. It is up to advocates and supporters to continue to develop them professionally, especially after graduation.

Demontea Thompson recently earned a graduate degree from the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. His graduate thesis explores the experiences of foster youth in graduate school. He conducted research in Bermuda, Japan and Ireland with the purpose of disseminating counter-narratives of foster and low-income youth in higher education. Thompson and his twin brother co-founded the nonprofit TwInspire to prepare youth in Los Angeles for the rigors of college and their transition to meaningful occupations. They have partnered with Echoes of Hope, a nonprofit organization that supports foster youth in college.

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