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City kids: Building networks for success

Learning good job seeking habits at Denby High
Learning good job seeking habits at Denby High
On a frigid Friday in February -- Valentine's Day -- students at Edwin Denby High School paid close attention as teachers Mia Sanders and Kevin Cooper led a class on digital etiquette and its implications for employment.

Sanders asked the students, "How many of you are actively seeking a job right now?"

About a third of the kids raised their hands.

"Well, you are going to need to be sure your voicemail greeting sounds professional if you expect to get an interview."

She then invited a student, Joseph, to bring his phone to the front of class and play his voicemail greeting over speakers. Sanders then asked the other kids to critique the professionalism of his greeting -- from its clarity to its appropriateness.

Next she steered the discussion to the potentials and pitfalls of social media.

"How many of you have a Facebook account?" Sanders asked the students.

Unsurprisingly, all of the students raised their hands.

"How about Instagram or Twitter?" Most of the hands remained up.

"How about Pinterest?" The students looked at each other quizzically.

"What about LinkedIn?" she asked.

"You lost us at Pinterest," said one young lady, and the other students started laughing.

Sanders and Cooper were illustrating a point with the students about how inappropriate social media posts can cost them job opportunities. They also discussed how social media networks, when used a certain way, can benefit kids as they begin building careers.

Y.E.S. and YDC

The kids in the classroom are enrolled in a Career and Technical Education (CTE) Program administered at Denby High by Youth Employment Solutions (Y.E.S.), the Detroit Youth Development Commission's (YDC) employment program for young people ages 14 to 21. Sanders and Cooper are YDC employees tasked with teaching kids at Denby skills that will serve them throughout their future careers.

Monday through Thursday, CTE students board busses from Denby to Wayne County Community College, where they take classes for college credit. Kevin Reid, 16, an aspiring mechanical engineer, takes welding classes. Senior Tori Harvard, 17, takes a class on video game design.

Every Friday, kids enrolled in CTE meet up for a career readiness course on Denby's campus.

"We learn about things like professionalism, getting ready for work, and teamwork," says Kevin Reid.

Though they are not required to attend on Fridays (CTE is a non-graded course), attendance isn't a problem for teachers Sanders and Cooper.

"The youth we have keep coming back," says Sanders. "The kids are here because they want to be."

The CTE program at Denby is a part of a transition Y.E.S. is making to year-round youth engagement around employment.

"One of our responsibilities is to help young people understand the habits of success. Getting them work alone does not do that," says Donna Givens Williams, President of the Youth Development Commission.

Kids who complete the CTE curriculum are given seat waivers for Y.E.S.'s summer jobs program. One of five nonprofits in Detroit coordinating youth employment on behalf of the Detroit Employment Solutions Corporation, Y.E.S. placed between 1,400 and 1,500 Detroit kids in summer jobs last year.

The kids' wages are fully subsidized by funds from the Workforce Investment Act. The jobs generally pay minimum wage, though some employers contribute more money to bump up the pay rate.

"We have a group of kids who have become members of the Asbestos Abatement Workers Local and make $17 an hour. Some have even reached the journeyman level," says Mike Trogan, Program Director of Y.E.S.

Successful partnerships

A big part of Y.E.S.'s work is securing worksites -- in other words, getting employers to agree to take on youth workers. Last year, Y.E.S. had 165 partner employers ranging from government, to nonprofit, to private sector organizations.

"We need to do a better job of understanding the career interests of our young people and linking them with jobs in those fields," says Melvyn Polk, Y.E.S.'s Worksite Development Coordinator. "We want to make sure they are not just doing busy work. We want their experience to be a real-life experience."

One example Polk gives of a successful partnership is with a hotel in Downtown Detroit, where he says kids working there are actually learning about careers in the hospitality industry.

Summer may seem like it is a long way off, but the 50 kids participating in CTE courses at Denby High are developing a long view that is preparing them for summer employment and careers as they enter adulthood. Next week, Y.E.S. is launching a similar vocational training program at Central Collegiate Academy.

"A lot of young people in our communities are living in places of consistent, chronic unemployment and joblessness," says YDC President Donna Givens Williams. "We are getting engaged in young people's paths and helping them figure out who they are and what they can be."

Matthew Lewis is a Detroit-based freelancer and a project editor for Model D.


Photos by Marvin Shaouni
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