Partnerships through Earn and Learn East Bay
helping cultivate a new-generation workforce
By Lou Fancher
During America's agricultural age, a national youth workforce developed organically. Kids on family-owned farms learned to equate hard work with eating and competition was whose hog weighed the most at the county fair.
Industrialization subsequently introduced small businesses in which young apprentices were taught problem-solving innovations by mentors.
In the service-oriented, Internet-reliant, global business economy of the 21st century, developing a workforce of young people has become a vast, complex operation requiring synchronized public and private partnerships.
Introducing Earn & Learn East Bay at a breakfast in Walnut Creek on Feb. 6, the Workforce Development Board of Contra Costa County in collaboration with the Contra Costa Economic Partnership kicked off an initiative to provide summer jobs, internships and hands-on, real-world learning experiences for young people ages 16 to 21.
The program pairs businesses like Chevron, Kaiser Permanente, SunPower and others with hundreds of kids seeking opportunities to develop technical, communication, cooperative and critical analysis skills. The youths join a job network at a critical entry point, when capability and potential for identifying a career path are at their peak and may lead to lifelong employment. For businesses, investing in an up-and-coming workforce has down-the-road benefits: when global competition is met with a stable of homegrown talent, the regional workforce is strengthened.
At the launch event, Contra Costa County Supervisor Candace Andersen told the audience about a recent visit to her office by a group of Boy Scouts. Shown demographics revealing that employment rates at various places in the county were anywhere from 3 to 11 percent, one boy asked what could be done for those without jobs.
"I said that love of education at an early age is the best start, but if opportunities are lacking, it doesn't make a difference," Andersen said.
She emphasized that youth employment problems cross socioeconomic barriers, with more affluent kids sometimes not appreciating the value of work, and skills gaps limiting children in economically challenged, underserved communities.
"Training and mentoring will cultivate a future workforce," she said.
The event was an opportunity to honor "Champions of Youth Opportunity, Advocacy and Change," represented by businesses and organizations already actively supporting jobs training for youth through paid and unpaid internships, summer camps and other similar programs.
"Pipelines to resources" are how Workforce Development Board Chairman Michael McGill referred to STS Academy, Phillips 66, an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers summer camp and Lettuce In, a Concord restaurant owned by Karen Bell that provides internships to youth working in the food industry.
Among the seven "Champions of Advocacy" honorees were BART, Tesoro, Dow Chemical and the East Bay Regional Park District, where mentorships provide minimum wage earnings and hands-on job experience including fence painting, trail building and even bat counting.
John Fowler, KTVU News science editor and event emcee, admitted he couldn't include bat counting on his resume, but said, "Nevertheless, these programs link directly to the real world of work."
Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, introducing Chevron, Kaiser Permanente and SunPower Corporation in the "Change" category, said Gov. Jerry Brown had put $100 million in his January budget for technology infrastructure in schools. Suggesting this indicated a shift to modernizing education, Bonilla said encouraging the full educational spectrum for students was invaluable.
Talela Allen, a 21-year old resident of Antioch and sophomore at Los Medanos College in Pittsburg, is already enacting change within the youth workforce community.
Providing outreach supervisory services for area youth through Bay Area Community Resources' ReSET program, Allen said she was honored to hand out awards at the event.
But as a foster child who "grew up with complete strangers my whole life," Allen said working with foster youth is "more of a highlight, a once in a lifetime thing, both for me and for the kids I work with."
ReSET provides case management and advocacy for up to 80 youth ages 16 to 21 in eastern Contra Costa County.
"Not a lot of people want to work with foster kids," Allen said. "You can't empathize with them unless you've experienced not growing up with parents, like I did."
Allen said that when the youths she interacts with don't care about jobs, it's often because they're influenced by people who don't care: "It's parents on drugs, school people who won't do things for them. I want youth to see a positive atmosphere," she said.
Asked if she believed Earn & Learn could be a viable part of the solution, Allen was unequivocal. "Absolutely. Everybody is here for a cause," she said.
"If we can expand that and let our youth know somebody wants to fight for them, we can make a huge change."