The job market isn’t favoring workers right now, especially young, inexperienced workers looking for jobs in upwardly mobile career paths, but this summer 10 Pittsburgh youths — many without any job experience at all — drew weekly paychecks from jobs at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Jewish Association on Aging.
They did it in part with the help from the Career Development Center at the Jewish Family & Children’s Service, and in part with help from you, courtesy of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the federal stimulus package.
The federal money was designed to help at-risk kids get work.
The timeline attached to those stimulus dollars required the Career Development Center to implement the program on a pretty tight timetable, only around two weeks, according to Linda Ehrenreich, chief operating officer of Jewish Family & Children’s Service.
“We really had to hustle,” she said.
While the CDC has been helping people navigate the employment maze for more than 25 years, the 2009 Pittsburgh Summer Youth Employment Program presented a slightly different challenge. The CDC typically helps workers find long-term employment, but this summer work program was designed from the start to be temporary.
That means employers not only took a risk in hiring untested teenagers, but they also took a risk on filling positions with employees they knew would be staying for only six weeks.
“This was really, to some extent, out of the goodness of their hearts,” Ehrenreich said.
The CDC relied on its previous relationships both inside and outside the Jewish community, placing the youths in jobs with the Jewish Association on Aging — Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Terrace, Assisted Living at Weinberg Village and the Charles M. Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center — and with UPMC Presbyterian Hospital.
Many of the youth enrolled in the program had never worked before, while others had worked only in minimum wage service and retail jobs, but not in health care.
The summer job program not only allows the youth to earn some money, but also gives them concrete job histories that make them more competitive in the job search, and also bolster college applications, according to Julia Marx, director of the CDC.
Rossana Cowan, coordinator of youth programs for the CDC, said she tried to inspire professionalism from the start. The youth — chosen from the Wilkinsburg area through a lottery system — began with a “business lunch” (actually, a pizza party) and an orientation course in “soft skills” — those social traits required for successful employment.
Cowan also required the youth to come by the CDC weekly to pick up bus passes and paychecks, creating a natural “check up” to address problems and refine skills.
The Pittsburgh Partnership — a citywide job placement effort that helped CDC implement the program — required all participants in the program to take a soft skills test and receive a 70 percent grade to pass. The CDC youth averaged 93 percent.
“They were motivated,” Cowan said.
For Felecia Johnson, 21, motivation came from her young daughter, Jerimirah, who spent time after birth in the neonatal intensive care unit, inspiring Johnson to pursue the field.
“I want to be NNIC unit because she was in NNIC unit,” Johnson said.
Johnson spent her summer working with older patients at the Charles M. Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. The hardest part of the job, she said, was learning to be assertive with the seniors, many of whom have dementia and require constant guidance.
Jasmine Glover said she would have probably spent the summer at amusement parks if she hadn’t learned about the summer work program. The job she got at Weinberg Village was her first, and she said she liked helping the seniors with their daily activities.
“I like helping people,” she said, “especially people who need your help.”
The youth became “surrogate grandchildren” to the seniors, according to Sharyn Rubin, volunteer and community services coordinator for the Jewish Association on Aging.
“I was amazed at how much bonding went on,” Rubin said.
Rubin said placing volunteers — even adults — is always a challenge.
“It had to work. If the chemistry didn’t work it was going to be six long weeks,” Rubin said. “But they were chosen well and trained well, and it all fell into place.”
Part of the reason it worked, Rubin said, is because the youth met people they wouldn’t normally interact with during daily life, like the young woman who bonded with Evelyn Kozak, who recently turned 110, twice as old as the young woman’s grandmother.
The CDC considers the program a great success and wants to expand it in the coming summers. Administrators said they have enough grant money to bring the program back next year, but are looking for additional funding and for additional staff to implement it.
(Eric Lidji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)