Lessons from the NYFC Vocational Conference for Youth in Foster Care

Last week I attended the WPTI training for social workers on workforce development. Its objectives were to connect social workers with each other in order to compare the challenges they faced connecting youth to workforce development programs, and for them to learn directly from the staff of those workforce development programs how they can better prepare their young people in care for success in them. My pen was flying almost the entire time as I tried to keep up with the conversation at my table. More on that later, but first:

Two definitions of “workforce development” from the trainer:

  1. Services that help individuals find and retain employment, including training in: job search and placement, soft skills (e.g., punctuality, conflict resolution), and hard skills (e.g., technical skills, welding skills).
  2. The function of assisting individuals, employers, and communities to achieve the occupational competencies necessary for competitive advantage in the marketplace.

I like how the latter doesn’t overload the individual job seeker with all the responsibility for career success. For populations with very specific needs, it is just as important that employers be aware of those needs, and also for the community to do what it can to support its young people.

And now for the meat and potatoes: What are the challenges that you as a social worker face in trying to connect your young people to the workforce?

  1. Young people often do not have enough formal education: problems with literacy, special needs.
  2. How do we get youth to be interested and motivated in the face of depression and fear of rejection?
  3. How do we get youth to be interested and motivated in the absence of financial incentives? (Many noted that many of their young people are focused on securing a stipend during their training and can’t see the advantage of unpaid training in soft skills). [This one was a popular challenge.]
  4. There are a lot of great workforce development programs, but not enough vocational training opportunities for those who aren’t college-bound. [This is a really important point.]
  5. Program requirements and restrictions often get in the way (e.g., programs that are restricted to residents in a certain borough, programs that require students to be in school full-time or require a high school diploma, etc.).
  6. When programs don’t work out, you risk getting blamed by the youth, and worse, losing her trust.
  7. Drug screenings and arrest records regularly get in the way.
  8. Young people have a sense of entitlement: They want everything handed to them, and also once they get hired, they don’t think they have to follow the rules.
  9. Youth have a lack of professionalism (e.g., “What do you do with the youth with a tattoo on his face?”).
  10. What can we do with young people with mental health concerns?
  11. There is a lack of after-school enrichment programs.
  12. There aren’t enough programs targeting youth ages 14-17.

What can agencies do to prepare their young people for success in workforce development programs?

1. Get all the adults on the same page. Agency workers and foster parents are encouraged to visit and keep in close contact with the workforce development staff so when an incident arises (or even when there is good news to share) the young person is faced with a unified team.

2. Workforce development programs can handle attitude problems, dress code issues, and the like. What they are not equipped to handle, however, are issues with housing and schedules. If a young person cannot make workshops because he needs to be at the shelter at certain times of the day, then the program might not be a right fit for him “right now.” (Most have a no eject/no reject policy, so young people are encouraged to try again when they are able to meet the program standards.)

3. Make sure the youth fits the program, since not all programs are for everyone. Some are stricter than others when it comes to dress code and attendance. If you keep putting the youth in a program and having it not work out, you are simply setting her up to fail.

Thank you, New Yorkers For Children, for inviting me to the conference. I’m looking forward to the upcoming Educational Conference, where the phenomenal and ever-stylish Jarel Melendez will be speaking.

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