From high school to $15 an hour

Local chapter of national nonprofit catapults young Chicagoans from poverty to the professional work world in one year.

September 3, 2013

(WBEZ/Linda Lutton)
Fernando Sierra, 20, on the first day of his Year Up internship as a member of the IT support team at a Loop company. Year Up aims to get high school graduates into $15-an-hour jobs.

Twenty-year-old Fernando Sierra is giving me a tour of his school, which is not exactly a school. For one, he’s paid a stipend to be here.  It’s in a Loop office building. The first thing students see when they walk in are the mirrors.

“You can catch me at this mirror every morning, just making sure I’m correct,” says Fernando. “Tie’s on right. Suit’s buttoned correctly.”

It’s called Year Up, and it’s a crash course in how to get in and fit in to the professional world—how to dress, how to write an email to your boss, how to suggest an idea. For six months, Year Up Chicago combines that sort of preparation with technical training in computer hardware and software—everything from how to switch out a motherboard to writing code to advanced Microsoft Office.
 
For the second six months, students work a paid internship in a corporate setting. They’re bank tellers, IT staff, insurance claims reps. The goal is to catapult low-income young people into a work world they had no connection to before.

“Often times, students when they finish high school, they’ll either have a path directly to college or career or they won’t,” says Alan Anderson, founding director of the Year Up program in Chicago. “We’re trying to solve for that group that doesn’t have a path—and that number keeps growing.”

Anderson estimates there are 65,000 young people in Chicago with a GED or high school diploma who are not in college or good jobs.

When Fernando tried college he was just 17. He says he didn’t have the mindset. A baby complicated things financially and time-wise. But Fernando is exactly the sort of striver Year Up is looking for. He says his mall job, where he’s worked since dropping out of college, is not leading anywhere.

“I think it comes down to wanting something more in life,” Fernando says. “I want more than just to be the guy (who) looks up five, ten years from now, still working in a shoe store, only making $7.50 an hour and 1 percent commission.”

Year Up wants all its graduates either in college or in jobs that pay at least $15 an hour. A 17-page application helps separate out the truly serious. Around three-quarters make it through the classroom portion. Director Anderson says those who do come out “fully baked,” ready for the work world.

According to Tony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, Year Up “does something that is missing in the American education system.”

Carnevale says schools in the U.S. are focused on getting kids to selective colleges—“from high school to Harvard”—and that system is not working for a majority of students. He says young people need more pathways to the work world.

“We used to do it through our employers,” says Carnevale. “You graduated from high school, you went to work in a Chrysler plant, you got skills on the job. Before you knew it you were making $80,000 with full benefits and retirement. That is the path that has broken down in the United States.”

Young people are not the only ones helped by Year Up. Aaron Olson is the global head of talent management for Aon Corporation. Perhaps surprisingly, Olson says businesses have trouble hiring for entry level positions.

“We have jobs in our customer service group, we have entry level analyst positions.  We hire more than 100 jobs every year in the Chicago area that do not require a college degree.” But he says applicants often lack problem-solving and people skills—and turnover is high.

Aon and other businesses pay a $24,000 fee to get a Year Up intern for six months. Part of that money covers the intern’s stipend; the rest funds the program, which gets almost no public dollars. Olson says it’s a win for Aon. The company gets committed, prepared young people, and “we actually also get a chance to see those students in the context of an internship, so we know in the end what they’re capable of.”

Early on a Monday morning in late July, Fernando Sierra looked up at the towering office buildings in the Loop and walked into the Bank of America building to start his paid internship on the IT support team at a fast-growing Chicago company, kCura.  “Pretty excited, actually, first day on the new job,” he said as he pushed through the revolving doors into another world.

On his desk that first day was some company swag and a nametag to hang on his cubicle. “I feel like a first grader on his first day of school,” Fernando declared.

About 85 percent of Year Up graduates find permanent positions or are enrolled in college within four months after their internships.  Recently, they’ve landed at Morningstar, Chase Bank and CVS Caremark. Year Up likes to say they’ve gone from poverty to professional jobs in just one year.

The program starts a new crop of students today.

Linda Lutton is an education reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation