Help offered for Atlanta area young people out of school, out of hope

By Marlon A. Walker

Today’s Opportunity ATL Job and Resource Fair in Decatur seeks not only to place young candidates in jobs, but to work with them on interview skills, resume building, and even provide training resources and interview attire.

The fair’s focus is more than 34,000 young people in metro Atlanta, called “opportunity youth,” between ages 16 and 24, who dropped out of school, failed out of school, were kicked out of school or finished school and did not seek further advancement. They are affected by anything from immigration issues to criminal records, homelessness, or lack of child care options.

It’s a departure from the typical room filled just with company representatives sitting behind labeled tables handing out company information and giving away pens, pencils and water bottles. Opportunity ATL, started by the metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce, was created to figure out ways to funnel educational and workforce resources to this often underserved population.

“The goal is to help them get jobs or connect to short-term training that is aligned with the local workforce,” said Amy Lancaster, the director of workforce development for the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.

The White House Council for Community Solutions coined the term “opportunity youth” more than five years ago while researching the demographic under the Obama Administration, but the work to discover who was part of this demographic began about 20 years ago. Several nonprofits either sprang up or added a focus on youth seemingly disconnected from resources that could afford them better opportunities.

“We work with communities to build out pathways … so when people are re-engaged in education systems, they have the support and opportunities for what they need to succeed,” said Lili Allen, associate vice president for JFF, a national nonprofit that works to drive changes in the country’s workforce and education systems.

Allen said opportunity youth often fall in one of two categories: Either they did not graduate from high school, or they graduated and never went anywhere.

“It’s much harder to find them and reach them,” she said of those who did graduate but could use resources to reconnect to pipelines for more education or jobs with better growth opportunities. “There are lists of people who did not graduate, so it’s easier to go about finding them.”

Some 6.7 million opportunity youth were identified through U.S. Census and other data as part of the White House Council for Community Solutions’ final report, delivered in 2012. That number has declined significantly since then to about 4.6 million.

“What we are seeing around the country in terms of what works is these close partnerships between community-based organizations, post-secondary institutions and employers … and creation of pathways that are demand-driven,”Allen said.

In May, Atlanta became the eighth city in the country to hold a fair through the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, a coalition of employers seeking to hire opportunity youth. The initiative is hoping to continue reaching opportunity youth through work in 25 communities and metro areas — including Atlanta, Seattle, Chicago and Los Angeles — to eventually eliminate the demographic.

Kisha Bird, director of youth policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a nonpartisan antipoverty organization that seeks policy solutions for low-income people, said opportunity youth were initially categorized as “out of school, out of work” or disconnected youth. But young people, when approached, said neither fit them.

“They said two things — ‘Don’t call us dropouts and don’t call us disconnected’,” she said. “They said, ‘It’s the systems that are disconnected, not us. We represent opportunity. We need opportunity.’ It’s a myth that they were just failing out.

“Sometimes, life happens.”

Vernetta Jackson left May’s fair with a second interview for a position at Enterprise Holdings, which includes rental car companies Enterprise, Alamo and National. She went to the fair with a clean outfit, an outdated resume and a plan to get hired by Enterprise. At the time, she was without a job, and with a newborn baby at home. She said she stopped delivering food for Panera Bread Co. shortly before having the baby.

She was hired several weeks later.

“It was just such a blessing for me,” she said.

Jackson, 26, got to the fair less than an hour before it was over. On the way inside, candidates walked a red carpet where encouragement — one saying was “You’re gonna get that job” — was spouted over a loud speaker. Once inside, Jackson said she got help with her resume before making her way to the Enterprise booth, where she sat down to fill out the application. Karen McGrath, human resources manager for Enterprise Holdings, gave Jackson tips on interviewing before sitting Jackson with another employee for the last on-site interview of the day.

“Some of the obstacles the young people have in front of them are so easy to relieve,” McGrath said.

She said her company hired more than a half dozen people at the May fair for its locations in Dunwoody and at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, including Jackson.

Jackson said her job has included working the service counter, helping customers choose vehicles and closing out rentals in the return area. She’s even met a few celebrities.

“You never know who you’ll meet being at the airport,” she said.

The job offers several perks, Jackson said, from health and retirement benefits to opportunities for growth. That was something she did not have in previous jobs.

“I like what the company stands for, how they treat you like family,” she said. “Now, I’ve got options for what I want to do.”

Bird cautions, though, that while there has been progress in lowering the number of opportunity youth, disparities and racial inequities remain. Young people, especially those of color, need work experience and people who can vouch for them as references.

“More people are talking about it,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean there’s increased (public sector) investment.”

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