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Where I Come From


Though I hate to admit it, since it’s a dead giveaway for an inflated ego, I rather enjoy public speaking. One of my most memorable speaking experiences was an early one: In fourth grade I was part of a dancing ventriloquism duo, featuring me and a McGruff the Crime Dog puppet. McGruff and I encouraged my peers to say no to drugs over a soundtrack pulsing with ’80s synthesized verve. (Apparently, some grant writer thought we were all addicts-in-the-making at 8 and 9 years old.) How did we do? Well, his good looks and my footwork kept at least one kid from becoming a casualty of that after-school special called life: Twenty-one years later, I’m still drug free.

It was probably victories like this that made me comfortable enough to accept an offer to speak to another potentially demanding crowd, the 18-to-24-year-olds who make up Baltimore’s first ever cohort of a job training program called Year Up.

Headquartered in Boston, Year Up is the brainchild of Gerald Chertavian, an entrepreneur and Harvard Business School graduate whose experience mentoring a young man from the Lower East Side of Manhattan spurred his desire to bridge what he calls “the opportunity divide” for other urban youth.

Year Up recruits high school graduates or GED recipients with low to moderate incomes in and around the eight cities in which it currently operates and delivers training and internships leading, it’s hoped, to entry-level support jobs with major corporations. Students learn hard skills—for example, information technology—and soft skills, such as business communications. They are paid throughout the course of the program, receive financial incentives for good behavior, and can earn up to 18 college credits.

When I first stepped into the Baltimore office, I found it impossible to tell the participants from the instructors. Everyone wore business attire, had a firm handshake, looked me in the eye as they introduced themselves, and seemed naturally poised. In other words, the students had already mastered the art of schmoozing. They were energetic, hopeful, and hungry.

You can’t help but root for these kids. People who are hard-working, perceptive, and disciplined are supposed to get ahead in this country, but the prospects for those without a college degree can be pretty grim. In 2004, workers who had not completed high school earned, on average, $21,600 per year. A high school diploma increased worker earnings by nearly half ($9,200), but high school graduates trailed their college graduate counterparts by nearly $20,000.

The benefits of higher education are undeniable, but many young people don’t go to college, and programs like Year Up that train people for particular jobs or industries have met with mixed results. In fact, when researchers have measured the impact of training programs on participants’ future earnings, out-of-school youth benefit least from such schemes. (Adults, especially women, and in-school youth fare better.) The results have been discouraging enough for some to argue for a reallocation of funding away from job training schemes and into early childhood programs with better track records of affecting the trajectory of a worker’s life.

The young adult participants in Year Up and other training programs are thus the off-screen characters in a great American fairy tale. We tell children they can become anything they dream of, but we don’t always give them the resources they need to succeed. And when they haven’t earned degrees or founded tech companies by their early 20s, we don’t offer many promising alternatives.

And by no means are all workers treated equally. A famous 2009 study showed that, in the hunt for low-wage jobs, black and Latino candidates who had never done time in prison were no more competitive than whites who had.

The big test for Year Up will be its long-term results. How well do its participants fare four or more years after completing the program? Can the students leverage the introduction they’ve been given to major firms into the skills and relationships that help people rise through the ranks? Those numbers have yet to be crunched. In the meantime, the program quotes impressive short-term results, such as the 84 percent of its graduates who are placed in full- or part-time positions.

This may sound strange coming from a young, black man from East Baltimore, but my time with the local Year Up cohort forced me to examine some of the ways I am unfairly privileged in the job market. As threatening as my presence might be to some strangers after dark and at a distance, the ways I dress, talk, and, apparently, dance (just ask McGruff), while completely natural to me, have the added benefit of being acceptable to the larger society.

The students I spoke to will leave Year Up with many skills, but if my experience is any indication, what may help them most is the ability simply to put the people who do the hiring at ease.

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