National Clearinghouse on Homeless Youth and Families

NCFY Reports

The Rules of the Game: Preparing Youth for the World of Work

Dressed in matching navy blue T-shirts, members of the HIRE Ground day labor crew show up for work at 7:45 a.m. sharp. A normal day for crew members might include sweeping the facilities of San Francisco's Larkin Street Youth Services, which runs the HIRE Ground program, painting a local hotel, or watering plants and cleaning storefronts for local businesses —all under the watchful eye of an adult supervisor.

Crew members not only get paid ($6.25 an hour, or $7.25 an hour with a high school diploma or GED), they also learn "what it's like to be at work," says Andrew Niklaus, director of education and employment services at Larkin Street, a Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB) grantee agency, where communicating with supervisors and peers, interacting with the public, and working independently at times all fit into the job description.

The day labor experience, part of Larkin's multifaceted HIRE UP youth employment program, helps runaway and homeless youth and other at-risk young people take an important step, one that precedes job readiness class, technical and vocational training, or getting a traditional job.

"Someone who has just exited the street, more likely than not, isn't going to be ready to hold a job," Niklaus explains.

A young woman graduates from job readiness class at Larkin Street Youth Services.Niklaus isn't just talking about a lack of training or education. He and other youth service professionals and youth employment advocates say that young people in general, and especially youth in at-risk situations, often lack the fundamental skills and attitudes necessary for entry-level employment. Before entering the workforce, youth employment advocates say, young people need to learn about the importance of things longtime workers take for granted, like showing up for work on time, dressing appropriately, managing stress, resolving conflicts with bosses and coworkers, communicating with others, and working as part of a team.

Young people need to learn these so-called soft skills, or nontechnical skills, before they show up for their first jobs, because many employers don't want to have to teach new workers skills they consider basic. U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao reflected on this issue at the White House Conference on Helping America's Youth in October 2005. "Many employers tell the Labor Department that they can teach workers the technical skills for just about any job," she said. "What they need are workers who are ready to learn. Workers who can show up on time, get along with others, complete assignments, and take direction."

Cindy Perry, director of special projects for the San Diego Workforce Partnership, has heard the same comment from employers. "Preferably, these were the skills your parents were teaching you," she says.

The disconnect between the basic skills employers expect and the deficiencies they detect in entry-level workers stems in part from the changing nature of work, says Sondra Stein, project manager for the Equipped for the Future Work Readiness Credential Project, a joint endeavor of the Federal government's National Institute for Literacy, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, five States, the District of Columbia, and major industry groups.

For instance, she says, in the past, entry-level workers in manufacturing jobs worked primarily alone, all day long. "You don't work on your own anymore in the workplace," she says, and that leads to a slew of consequences for job seekers. "In every industry, workers have to make more decisions, work with more people, communicate more."

Given that reality, young people with unstable family backgrounds who don't learn important interpersonal, decisionmaking, and communications skill at home or in their communities are at a disadvantage in today's labor market, Stein says.

In addition, compared to their peers with stable home lives and residences, runaway and homeless youth are "less likely to get connected to any kind of [early] work experience" where they could learn workplace norms and expectations, says Kate O'Sullivan, director of quality initiatives at the National Youth Employment Coalition in Washington, DC.

That's where HIRE Ground, the U.S. Department of Labor's Job Corps (a residential training program for at-risk young people ages 16 to 24), and other job readiness programs come in, helping young people to gain the nontechnical skills and the workplace savvy they need to succeed on the job. "What's really important for [at-risk youth] is to make it explicit," Stein says, "because they don't have expectations. They've never had it modeled."

That modeling may come via a simulated work environment or a program like HIRE Ground. Many transitional living and youth employment programs, including Larkin Street, also have developed "job readiness" curricula that cover a range of topics such as conflict resolution, communication skills, self exploration, dress and hygiene, résumé building, and interviewing.

In addition to teaching the "soft skills," many successful work readiness programs emphasize "biculturalism," Stein says, contrasting the culture of the street and the culture of mainstream America and making clear when different behaviors are appropriate.

Programs also need to show an appreciation of the culture that young people come from, says Terry Simmons, program administrator and career coach at Career Builders, a State workforce development intermediary in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a partner in the FYSB-funded Louisiana Positive Youth Development Collaboration Demonstration Project.

"A huge part of getting these kids to conform is confirming that their culture is legitimate," Simmons says.

He recommends teaching young people to adapt to diverse environments by offering them a dual message: that hip-hop and other aspects of youth culture are valid and significant, but at the same time, "if they go in with gold teeth and tattoos, it's going to be hard to get a mainstream job."