In my last column, I walked you through the alternative schools in which Community TV Network—the nonprofit I work for—has digital media programs. I shared the unique challenges that a special pool of students faced in their last-ditch effort to get a high school diploma and their fears of what’s next for them after the diploma.
In addition to my work assisting teachers in video production classes and finding funds for youth film projects, I voluntarily serve as a mentor to about ten students on a rotating basis throughout the year. My mentees are typically one year out of high school, but, like my video production students, they also ask me often if I know anyone who is hiring. But when they ask, they do so more urgently. Sometimes my mentees will call me during the work day and ask, “When are you free? Because I really need your help, Ms. Marissa.” I automatically know that means they need help finding a job.
It’s amusing to me that young people look up to me and ask me for advice, as I’m still trying to find my way through the perils of life. Balancing my work and personal life is still a challenge for me, which is something I’m not shy about expressing to them. But I guess young people can sense my present and non-judgmental nature and consider it a valuable resource as they are trying to figure things out. People don’t realize that a non-expert can still offer small pieces of advice to young people and still make a big difference in their lives.
While the youth joblessness documentary at Joshua Johnston Fine Arts Academy was in its pre-production phases, I was also spending weekends and late nights preparing mentees for the job market, and these two experiences went hand-in-hand.
I helped them prepare for interviews, sent them job postings, and reviewed professional interview attire via text message. This left me wondering if others in the city were providing these same services and if so, why weren’t these job training services made visible to the youth who needed them the most?
The Chicago Urban League sends staff out into the communities to pass out flyers to recruit sixteen to twenty-four-year olds into their success strategies workshops and summer youth employment programs. These programs offer job readiness skills like employment search techniques and resume development training to seventy-six out-of-school and out-of-work youth.
My mentee Darnisha Washington, a 2015 Joshua Johnston graduate, went through a similar job readiness program that focused on looking professional for a job, which she said helped her stand out for her interview at a big box store.
When she walked into the store for her interview, she did a mental wardrobe inventory and was surprised that the other five people there for the interview were so unprepared. Many of them were wearing jeans and non-uniform clothes. “This one girl was sitting there in a Nike pullover coat,” Darnisha told me. “And I was thinking that she should take that off before her interview, but she didn’t.”
I agreed that the girl’s hoodie, made of black leatherette material with the white Nike swoosh on the front of the coat, was only appropriate for weekend wear. I told Darnisha that it was possible that she didn’t have anything else to wear. But she told me that the style of coat was in season, so she could tell it was a recent purchase.
I thought to myself that either these people didn’t know what professional attire is, or they didn’t want to let go of clothes that represented a cultural identity.
“You can still be swagged out at work by wearing certain pieces of jewelry or different hair styles.” But it seemed like she understood that you had to abide by professional rules to gain employment. “When you want a job you have to look nice and presentable,” said Darnisha. She said her family had given her tips on what to wear to a job interview.
The Chicago Urban League’s Director of Workforce Development, Andrew Wells, told me, “Some of today’s youth aren’t prepared for the work force because their parents in the home spend years without working.” The youth grow up without seeing an example of how to carry themselves as an employee.
Wells also said that in the school systems, teachers are dealing with behavior problems so much that “they don’t have the time to walk the students through career development.”
Wells wished that the League had the funds to walk thousands of students in the city through career development but due to lack of funding, they serve up to about eighty youth a year.
He understands that a lack of jobs is an issue but he witnesses youth who don’t take pride in their work ethic trying to get in the job market, and he believes that slashes their chances of ever getting hired.
I do come across a lot of young people interested in get rich quick schemes or fantasizing about becoming a rapper or entertainer rather than putting in hard work.
Darnisha, on the other hand, told me that although her feet hurt after standing up doing her cashier duties for many hours, she’s excited to have her own money this summer.