Employer discrimination not only encompasses the obvious lack of diversity in the workplace, but also includes the ill-treatment of young adultsonce they are within the company. Preconceived notions, stereotypes, and bias, play a huge part in the manner in which employers select their employees, and the often undue scrutiny to which young black and Latino males are subjected. These obstacles don’t make the corporate ladder hard to climb, but rather make it unreachable.
Though we’ve all heard of the “good ol’ boy” network, mainstream society refuses to openly acknowledge its existence, often promoting the façade of equal opportunity employment in public, while opening back room doors for their chosen candidates. This hidden labor market snatches employment opportunities away from African American males that most times they were never even made aware of in the first place. The existence of this exclusionary network forces these poor young adults black men to fend for themselves in an already diminished job pool.
Our inability to deal with these issues of inequality, cultural competence, and the structural issues that impact the economic life changes of the youth we serve is a main reason why young people are not feeling our programs in the first place. In a country with only 250,000 publicized slots for 5.4 million out-of- school youth, our programs should not have a recruitment and retention problem.
I will give it to you straight no chaser. It doesn’t matter who signs your youth development certification credential, unless the aforementioned issues are dealt with, we are not ensuring jobs for the youth in our service, but rather for ourselves, the middle class professional youth service worker. The truth of the matter is that the majority of middle class youth workers are youth culturally incompetent.
At a recent conference where I spoke about the need to do basic things like change our voice mail system to make them a little more appealing to youth, one youth worker told me that employers are not interested in hearing youth culture when they call his office. I’m sure he meant well, but it is this type of thinking that keeps young black males estranged from their programs, but at the same time confused by society’s message. A particular example of this is Nextel’s commercial that states “WHERE YOU AT????????” On the surface this message indicates that Nextel gets it, that they know how to reach the young people. The underlying message, however, is that of suburban America telling young black males, “We can use your culture to draw you in and take your money, but we don’t want you working here.”
“If you can’t find the solution, it’s because you can’t see the problem, and if you can’t see it, how can you fix it?” If this statement that I use in many of my speeches is remotely true, then for the past 40 years the workforce development policy has been in need of laser eye surgery.
Training has been a cruel hoax on the poor and Negroes, as the trained are not placed on jobs and are shifted to other training programs or allowed to drift in the limbo of the irregular marginal economy. -Dr. Martin Luther King
If Dr. King had this type of insight in the sixties, why is it that we are still floundering around using the same ineffective methods, looking for a solution that is right in front of us? When is someone besides the young person going to stand up and say, “This isn’t working?” That time must be now. Youth service providers must shake off the cobwebs of their old systems, clear their goggles, and advocate for the following changes:
1. Increased Job Creation for Poor Young Adults. The emphasis here has to be jobs now, permanent jobs. Given the incompetence of the middle class youth worker, the lack of hope to address this competence, the unwillingness of employers to hire young adults, especially young black males, and the current economic crisis, it is imperative that we employ a nation of Young Adult Human Service Workers (Peer Support Workers (PSWs)) to provide much needed services in the battle for economic opportunity for America’s youth. PSWs can serve a role in human services that the middle class youth worker can’t. They can reach the youth because they haven’t forgotten what it takes to reach them. PSWs can: · Get a credible message out in the community where the youth are. They’re willing to go to the natural environments at times when the middle class youth worker does not want to be present. ·Attend weddings, funerals, cook-outs, krump battle sessions, showing their interest in the things that interest youth while promoting the FEO message at a time when the message will be well received. ·Inform and train the workforce and education system in how to respect the community. ·Reach the hard to reach because they don’t have to validate who they are and why they are there.
The PSW position can be invaluable if given the latitude and resources necessary. The PSW position must be integrated into every budget and made into a full-time permanent position with room for advancement into counselor, case manager, job developer, and director positions. Advancement must not rest on the acquirement of any traditional degrees, however. Non-traditional pathways to higher position must be created and legitimized by the research community.
2. Workers Rights Training. This training is a crucial part of equipping youth and yet is often overlooked within employment programs. Information regarding what youth should expect and what is expected of them inside the workplace must be integrated into every workforce curriculum and program. See my last article – The Forgotten Competency Workers’ Rights.
3. Office of Youth Cultural Competence. The creation of this element within a program is imperative in order to gauge, monitor, support, and sanction the use or non-use of youth culturally competent educational and workforce approaches within workforce investment areas and school districts. The focus must be on reaching these youth and boosting them into success rather than on satisfying the needs of employers who don’t want them and community colleges that can’t keep them.
The bottom line is that unless we are willing to step out of our collective comfort zones and embrace the culture where our youth reside, we are going to continue to lose them through the cracks. The only question is will we be the ones creating them?