Robert Barnett

For many teens, the toughest job is finding one. Teen employment is declining, and this summer’s job market is expected to end up as the worst on record, according to a recent report by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Here in Chicago, CPS needs to do more to prepare kids for work, says Barnett. Last year, Jobs for Youth placed nearly 1,000 young people in regular jobs, half of which paid more than $10 per hour. Before beginning their job search and working one-on-one with counselors, young people who sign up with Jobs for Youth attend an eight-day job readiness and life skills program taught largely by volunteer business professionals. One non-negotiable requirement: High school dropouts must go through the group’s GED program. Jobs for Youth also provides business clothes and ongoing mentoring once young people find work. Barnett talked with writer Rebecca Harris about job preparedness and what CPS ought to do to help students prepare for the workplace.

Have you tried to partner with CPS?

We haven’t been really successful with a formal relationship. In working with [the CPS office of] Education to Careers, we asked to work with the schools that are training young people in the areas where we know we have jobs. I’m against having someone train in plumbing if we have no plumbing jobs. But it was all or nothing.

There’s a mismatch in expectations. Ours is to do career development and to get them out there working. Not in lieu of education, but as part of the totality of life. I still think CPS is concentrating on testing and scores and having the school system look good.

We are talking to a couple of funders about [obtaining money] to go out and actually do our job training in schools. We should talk to CPS about that.

What does a successful career education program need?

An employer advisory council that is actively involved with the curriculum.  That’s what keeps us on target. If you’re using the same curriculum for longer than two years, then you are not preparing a person to be competitive.

How would you overhaul the education system to better prepare students for work?

I can talk about several kids who have come to us who were valedictorian of their class, and they’re reading at an 8th-grade level. We are doing them a disservice to call them valedictorians. We need to start dealing with real truths. The whole letter grading system is passé – it needs to be dumped – and we should go to a competency-based system where there’s some standard scale of measurement.  So if I went to Manley and [the system] said that I can function at the 12th-grade level, I can function at the 12th grade level around the world.

The same skill set is needed in the workforce as it is to go to college. The college curriculum should be for everybody, and then you can implement some career awareness.

What do you think about Mayor Richard M. Daley’s summer jobs program?

The fact that it exists is a positive in the climate we’re in right now. Unfortunately you’re still screening out those on the lower end. You have to fill out an application by a certain day, interview, and then you’re selected. So the kid who doesn’t have a C-average and is failing, isn’t getting a summer job. We need to do something for that group.

Is it tough to convince employers to hire students who have been in trouble with the law?

We have a small cadre of employers who are willing to hire on an individualized basis. We try and look at education and training for them, possibly entrepreneurial types of jobs, or find something in manufacturing, warehousing.

The sooner we can get them engaged in the economy in a positive way, we’re all going to benefit. The government tells us all the time to find these kids jobs. But they won’t hire them. So why do they think the private sector’s going to hire them?

Do most young people understand the basic rules of work?

The majority are missing [the understanding of] something that could get them fired – whether it’s dress, or how to respond to their boss. It’s amazing to me. Some of them come in with a beautiful resume, but can’t articulate what’s on it. The question, “Tell me something about yourself” – it just frightens the heck out of them.

How do you teach them these skills?

Businesses have a standard as far as attendance, attitude, achievement. People have to come to that bar. The first day of the eight-day program, if you’re late, you’ve got to go back and repeat it. It’s not like high school, where [school staff] run around and say, “Come on, Johnny, you can do it.” We’re very professional, but if you don’t do what the tasks are, you’ll be asked to leave. But you can always come back.


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