By Sam Aspnes
I tell most people my first job was working the concession stand of a movie theater. In reality, my first job was being a part of my parents’ labor force. Despite legislation outlawing forced child labor, my parents flaunted the law and made me mow the lawn, clean the house, and (gasp) dig rocks out of the yard. Of course I realize now that work has helped me in many ways – although I would never admit that to my parents.
Employment breeds a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. It connects a person to their community. And honest work precludes adults and youth from having to make money in more “creative” ways.
For youth transitioning out of YRTCs or other out-of-home placements, finding and keeping a job is important for a successful transition back into the community. I talked with Mark Mason of Nebraska VR (Vocational Rehabilitation) and Jim Bennett, Program Specialist for Reentry at the Office of Probation Administration, about things to think about when helping youth get back to work. Here are the top 5:
1. Job placement and training services
For youth involved with the system, finding a job that fits is often a great obstacle. Placement services help youth not only find a job, but keep a job. Placement staff identify client job goals by looking closely at the client’s strengths, interests, and aptitudes. And if they require more training, program staff can set them up with technical or service training programs or post-secondary education options.
A few examples of Nebraska’s resources offering assistance with train-to-work and job placement services are Nebraska VR, the HUB’s Project Hire, Workforce Development – Workforce Investment Act (WIA), and YouthBuild USA. These providers teach job seekers how to look for a job – often through non-traditional methods. They also help with job application preparation and have partnerships with employers looking for qualified, trained workers.
Also, keeping a job is often harder than finding a job to begin with. Nebraska VR Program Director for Transition Services Mark Mason says following up with youth after they’ve found a job is crucial. A quick follow-up can smooth out disconnects between employers and employees and resolve interpersonal conflicts.
2. Informal supports and caring adults
Though often overlooked, one of the most important things to consider for any youth on reentry is a strong system of informal supports and caring adults in the lives of these young people. It is this support system of neighbors, friends, relatives, co-workers, teachers, and mentors that will support and sustain a young person when the other services and professional adults are either unavailable or no longer being used.
Services do not cure problems; communities and families do. Employment and job-finding services are a great way for youth to obtain employment, but if a young person can identify a trusted adult, that relationship will do more to help the youth retain that employment and achieve those other developmental outcomes desired for all youth in Nebraska.
3. Developing soft skills
Oftentimes, youth in reentry lack the “soft skills” necessary to fit in with a company culture and to work well with others. Soft skills – also known as “workforce readiness” skills – include communication, attitude, networking, teamwork, critical thinking, and personal habits. Visit the ODEP website to learn more.
Soft skills go a long way towards finding and retaining employment. Many of us learn these skills early on, and they’re often taken for granted. The organizations mentioned above all help with soft skills, but so should schools and adults. Improving soft skills should be addressed in every part of the reentry process.
4. Tech literacy and help for the emotionally, mentally, and physically disabled
Technology is advancing rapidly, and being capable and literate with that technology is often necessary to succeed in the modern workplace. Basic computer skills like using a keyboard, mouse and email, and having reliable access to the Internet all play a role – yet many who grew up in low-income families have none of these skills or resources.
Here is a free introductory online course to computer literacy provided by Microsoft.
Tech literacy is also critical for youth with emotional, mental, and physical disabilities. According to research from the National Disability Rights Network, an estimated 70 percent of justice-involved youth have disabilities, including psychiatric, mental health, sensory, and intellectual disabilities. Train-to-work programs offer assistance and solutions through adaptive technology.
5. Don’t forget education
While we want youth to be employed and learn those employment skills, obtaining an educational diploma will increase long-term employability and earning potential and will decrease the likelihood of recidivism and incarceration. So coordination around employment and education is crucial. One doesn’t take precedence over the other.
The connection between schools and employment is extensive. Schools themselves offer opportunities and supports for career readiness, and a youth’s school counselor can be an amazing resource. Many schools offer school credits for employment and will work with that youth’s school schedule to fit that employment.
Many of the job readiness programs that young people engage in have a school component built into them and many are targeted towards youth with an IEP or a 504 plan.
Balancing school and work is a struggle for most everyone engaged in both. When you add probation officers, case workers, treatment providers, and other external expectations of young people, it is no wonder we see those struggles with one or the other.
Sam Aspnes is an NJJA board member and graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Journalism and Mass Communications.