Job Program Aimed at Youth

August 02, 2009 | The Omaha World Herald |  Link to article

Rashad Harrell, sent home for the day for wearing shorts to work, was angry at his boss and angry at the world.

Kicked out of school two years earlier, the 18-year-old had racked up a string of misdemeanor convictions, and nothing was going his way - not even this last-chance employment program for low-income youths.

Harrell already had skipped the first week and a half of work and finally showed up only because of a relentless employer. Omaha Housing Authority staffers called repeatedly, and one spent days looking for him.

Harrell now viewed this one-day punishment from OHA as a grave injustice and decided he was through.

OHA officials, however, decided he was not.

This is where a well-intentioned one-time federal youth jobs program meets the reality of the street.

Some question whether the hastily put-together Summer Youth Program is wasteful, in part because of the make-work nature of the jobs - pulling weeds, cleaning apartments, organizing basketball tournaments, filing papers - and the oversight required by some of the workers.

"Taxpayers are going to have to look at that and ask themselves ‘Wow, was that a good use of money?' I don't know," said Leslie Paige, a spokeswoman for Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C.-based tax watchdog organization.

Others are glad to see a chronically hard-to-employ population getting some attention, however short-lived it is.

They hope to see the Summer Youth Program - part of the federal stimulus legislation - become a permanent fixture, like the summer jobs programs the government once provided.

"This is what it should be," said Thomas Warren, president and CEO of the Urban League of Nebraska, one of the agencies helping to implement the program in Omaha. "The youngsters are engaged, they're being responsible, being productive, and they're earning a legitimate income."

Warren and other anti-poverty and youth advocates acknowledge there are challenges in executing a massive program on short notice.

Then there is the population the government is hoping to reach: low-income disadvantaged teens and young adults who face poverty's puzzle of piecing together housing, health care and child care. Many showed up lacking basic skills or motivation or had a negative attitude.

Yet failing to hop on the funds would have meant doing nothing about youths in need, especially young black males such as Harrell, in a metro area that has one of the nation's poorest black communities.

So advocates saw the Summer Youth Program as the kind of front-end investment needed to shore up youths on the brink and to prevent long-term, costly problems that come with a chronically out-of-work population.

How has it gone?

Bumpy at first, report Nebraska and Iowa agencies.

A big problem early on was attendance. Some employees just didn't show up, or didn't think to call when they couldn't get to work.

Then there were matters of attire, attitude and missed social cues, such as mistaking a supervisor's redirection for disrespect, slacking off on the job or - a universal one - taking cell phone calls.

A handful of workers at Family Housing Advisory Services would gather each morning at their check-in spot and gab with one another, talk on cell phones and be reluctant to start work.

Five of 11 workers assigned to the Omaha Public Library could not pass a basic aptitude test on alphabetizing names and putting codes in numeric order.

Two workers, ages 18 and 23, at the Norfolk Chamber of Commerce had to be taught phone etiquette and professionalism. The younger one had never worked and the older one's only other work experience was cleaning motel rooms.

The City of Grand Island had a different complaint. The federal criteria were so strict that the city's recruiter had trouble matching summer workers with jobs. Amy Hall, human relations specialist, said the city needed about a half-dozen mowers, but none of the eligible workers were old enough - the city requires them to be 18 - or had a driver's license.

Mary Warren, who directs a seven-county workforce development program at Iowa Western Community College, said she had to hustle to find jobs for 80 to 90 youths, but employers that couldn't afford to add staff were grateful for the summer help. With that has come some hand-holding.

Warren had to tell her 19-year-old worker about when she could take cell phone calls.

"She's needed a lot of coaching," Warren said of her worker. "That's the great thing. They get mentoring or coaching they might not get in the private sector."

There has been no shortage of applicants. In the Omaha area, Douglas, Sarpy and Washington Counties drew 618 people who met the criteria, and they enrolled 519.

The City of Lincoln, which is administering the program for the city and Lancaster and Saunders Counties, has 130 youths enrolled so far, and less than 10 percent have left - a turnover rate that surprises program manager Dan Cain. He has seen washout rates double and triple that.

The rest of Nebraska's 88 counties combined drew 566 applicants for some 200 spots.

The demand indicates the desire for a paying job, though a candidate such as Harrell could make any employer question that desire.

The Omahan had worked only once before: a dishwasher stint that he quit after only two weeks because he hated washing dishes.

Employers such as OHA arguably are better equipped and have stronger motivation than most for working with a population that includes many of the people they serve.

OHA, with 11 public housing towers, two large family apartment complexes and hundreds of other homes, also has no shortage of work.

The agency has dealt with disciplinary issues. One female worker was a no-show and later was spotted outside Crossroads Mall with a new pair of sneakers. A male worker was reprimanded for using someone's security badge to get started early - an infraction that won some praise for a good work ethic, but a lecture about how to show that.

And like anywhere else, OHA's pool of applicants ranged from superstars to tough cases.

There's a brother-sister pair that is excelling. Brandon Tullos, 24, has an associate's degree in business but discovered a talent for working with his hands during his stint on a maintenance team. His younger sister, college-bound Leandera Murray, 17, works in the administrative office.

Both are saving their $7.25-an-hour earnings for bigger prizes: Tullos wants a car; Murray wants school clothes.

But many of the workers, said OHA Human Resources Director Gale Sayers-Proby, are not unlike Harrell. Each has a story of hardship and mistakes. Sayers-Proby hopes the agency can provide more substantive help than jobs.

She pulled Harrell off of a maintenance crew and put him with a grandfatherly mailman so Harrell would have one-on-one attention and a positive role model. She mother-henned Harrell into doing his part. Now, to Harrell's surprise, he is rising every day at 5 a.m., driving an older brother to his summer youth job at Creighton University and putting in a full eight hours a day at OHA.

"It was hard at first," Harrell said. "Now I just get up."

Warren, the Urban League director and former Omaha police chief, credits the summer program with keeping teens and young adults out of trouble. He said there is a correlation between poverty, unemployment and crime.

The youths need "a positive work experience so they can become productive citizens," Warren said. "They need to be afforded these opportunities if we're ever going to change the socioeconomic challenges of this community."

Yet the opportunities must be matched with open-eyed employers willing to help workers who, in almost every other job, could have been fired, youth advocates say.

"The purpose," said Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt, senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy, is "not to take the kid who has it all together, but to prepare the kid who hasn't got it all together yet so that, as a result of this experience, they would have learned something and are able to be a more functional, productive member of society."

Two weeks into the program at Family Housing, a nonprofit at 24th and Lake Streets, Executive Director Teresa Hunter met with staffers who told her they felt like baby sitters and were distracted from their duties.

Hunter asked them to recommit themselves.

Agency officials met with each participant and changed the morning routine, directing youths to supervisors instead of to a waiting area to get their assignments.

They provided more education, teaching workers about budgeting, banking and paycheck basics such as tax withholdings. Each youth worker got a name tag that included positive attributes, such as "detail-oriented."

Cell phones were OK'd only during lunch or breaks. And staff decided to call them interns instead of "the kids."

The changes made a difference in the summer employees' attitude and work ethic.

"If we had not gone back," Hunter said, "if the agency wasn't fully committed to saying ‘This is an opportunity for us,' it could have been a totally different ballgame."

Elizabeth Startzer of Goodwill Industries said it's important to target this population because "nobody wants to touch" young adults missing some of the experiences that would have prepared them for work.

"Ideally you are taught that from birth on," she said. "But this is a great way for youths to receive those skills."

That appears to be the case, for now, for Rashad Harrell.

When he hadn't showed up on his first day, OHA's Sayers-Proby called his phone and sent an outreach worker to his home. Seven days later, the worker finally found Harrell, smelling of alcohol.

"I need you to come here ready to work," Sayers-Proby told him.

After that rough start, Harrell appears to have hit his stride. He said he initially resisted working because he didn't like being told by his probation officer that he had to do it.

Now, though, he has discovered the upside to a job: a paycheck that is going in part to help his mother and in part to buy sneakers and new clothes.

And he is starting to plan. He has begun classes toward obtaining his general equivalency diploma. Once his OHA stint is over, he plans to look for a U.S. Postal Service job.

Yet the 18-year-old doesn't blink when asked where he'd be if he weren't working for the housing authority.

"In jail."


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