Workforce Development Programs Miss the Mark
Copyright (c) 2008 Edward DeJesus
One misconception that many adults buy into concerning youth is the myth that they don’t care about their future or much of anything else for that matter. To the contrary, teens have a great deal of concern about where they stand in life and what opportunities are available to them. In many cases however, they find that the choices available and the methods used by services and organizations that are supposed to serve them fail to address the real issues that limit their life, freedom and future economic opportunity. This failure results in youth who resort to their own methods in order to fill the gap.
This perception of failure held by youth translates into fewer numbers returning to take advantage of the program services designed to offer education and jobs. Frustrated staff members, who diligently attempt to persuade teens to complete the process that will assist in job placement indicate, “They just don’t want to come back. They get the attitude of ‘what did the program really do for me?'”
While youth believe their resistance in participating in these programs is justified, the adult society perceives this as a lack of appreciation that is rooted firmly in bad manners and a “what’s in it for me” mentality. However, according to youth focus group members, participation in the traditional educational system perpetuates a mentality of poverty. Their assessment of educational and workforce programs offered and funded by state and other governmental agencies, is that they promote mediocrity, minimally developing skills so that future underemployment is more likely to be within their scope than long term economic self-sufficiency. In other words, these methods just keep young people’s boats from sinking, they do little to get them to shore.
At a recent presentation to the Southern Nevada Workforce Investment Board, I challenged the group to think about the investment individuals make in preparing “privileged” youth for future success and fulfillment. The resulting laundry list looked nothing like what we currently offer in traditional workforce and youth development programs. For one thing, the outlook of those investing individuals is significantly different from that projected by workforce programs. The term investment alone implicates an expected favorable return, whereas the term workforce brings to mind a mundane existence. Notice how two totally different words have the ability to project two completely different outlooks on life.
As practitioners, we have to focus on projecting a path that is clearer, brighter, and lasting. We can start by changing our name and the perception attached to it. Our program focus must paint a picture of optimism and future prosperity for our youth. When selecting a program name, we must ask the following questions: Do young people want to be members of the workforce, or do they want economic self-sufficiency? Do they want to be exploited labor, or do they want economic justice and fair play? Do they want youth development services, or do they want those services to remove the economic and social inequities that determine who gets the best school and who doesn’t? Who is in jail and who isn’t? Who runs the company and who works for them? We need a name that redirects our attention as well as our focus.
Repeatedly I declare that we don’t need an employer demand driven workforce system. We need an opportunity system powered by the demands of youth. What is it that interests them? What will benefit them more so that their future economic success is enhanced? Continuing to focus on developing an employer demand driven workforce system is undermining our ability to engage the youth we are entrusted to serve. The problem with the principles of youth development, however, is that it does not allow you to ask the question, “Why do we need these principles in the first place?”
As a youth worker with several years of experience, I have urged programs to stop candy-coating the issues and speak openly and plainly about the problems within the system. In the minds of youth, the terms “workforce and youth development” reduce our youth’s capital to something that we are crafting for another demographic -a demographic that is going nowhere.
Unfortunately as policymakers and practitioners, we seldom take a deeper look, mainly because we are unaware of our youths’ genuine concern about the state of their lives and where they are headed. The reality is that they are not as indifferent as we believe them to be. When prompted, youth participating in focus groups outlined what they believed to be the keys to a more successful and positive outcome. Surprisingly, these points mirror what we as parents want our youth to strive towards. Some of these points include:
-Obtaining educational degrees
-Building of work experience
-Developing new skills
-Increasing social networks
With this information as ammunition, workforce development practitioners must change their name. We should no longer use the term workforce or labor anywhere in our vocabulary. The U.S Department of Labor must become the U.S. Department of Future Economic Opportunity, the State of Nevada’s Workforce Investment Board must become the State of Nevada’s Future Economic Opportunity Board, and U.S. Job Corps must become the U.S. Future Economic Opportunity Corps.
Policymakers and practitioners must recognize that any effort to do to others without addressing the underlying issues will be suspect and consistently rejected, and should therefore be scrapped. We can start off by sending a new message.
In my speeches I often state that we live in a world of reality TV. We give props over how radical people are willing to become for a date, a million dollars, or 50 pounds of weight loss, none of which are accomplishments that have any relevant meaning to our youth. I charge that we must concentrate on the relevant and become passionate about the things that are important to our youth. What do you think your young people will think when you get radical for them?