by Melissa Hackenmueller
There is a crisis in the work force today: youth are not learning a good work ethic during their school years. This especially applies to inner-city schools where funding is limited.
Here’s an example:
The Urban Poverty and Family Life Study did a survey of 179 Chicago employers in 1988 and found that they shied away from hiring inner-city kids because of a poor work ethic, low job dependability, a bad attitude, lack of basic skills, and low interpersonal skills. A 2004 study by “Entrepreneur” trade journal confirmed that this is still the case with inner-city kids.
Clearly, this is very damaging to the workforce and places the foundations of our economic system in peril. But how can we remedy it?
I think that in order for any solution to be viable, there must be two things in place: high expectations, and practical lessons. It is an unwritten rule that kids will achieve—in general—what you expect them to achieve.
When I was in high school, my parents set the expectation that I wouldn’t get involved in drugs or underage drinking—and I never did. However, if they had ever doubted that I could resist those pressures, I’m certain I would have given in.
Of course, high expectations aren’t enough. You also need a program in place that will teach and reinforce behavior. After all, we don’t learn by osmosis, but by practice.
One program that can be a good model is “Voyager: Direction for Learning and Careers” at Thomas Edison High School in Minneapolis. It was started in 1994 by the Minneapolis Regional Chamber of Commerce and is currently only offered at Edison.
Of the approximately 900 students at Thomas Edison, about 85% participate in the free and reduced lunch program, and many come from single parent, working families. The students represent about 30 cultures and speak 30 to 40 languages. Many are second-generation Americans.
The Voyager program is a two-year leadership program that prepares students for the working world by providing career-oriented leadership training. It teaches students the very “soft skills” (such as a team mentality, a good work ethic, interpersonal communication and leadership skills) that are needed in real life work, said Shirley Poelstra, Career Experience Coordinator at Edison. It also builds students’ leadership, sense of responsibility and self-confidence.
So, how does it do that?
There are approximately 70 juniors and seniors in the program who were selected as sophomores. Each group of students takes a business class or seminar together during the week.
“When they go to that class they know the students and they’re a team,” Poelstra said in an interview. “That holds them accountable, because they don’t want to let the team down.”
Each student connects with a mentor at Target Corporation. They also participate in career-building events, receive college essay and resume writing advice, and must give in-class speeches to compete for president and vice president positions. Additionally, all students must complete 50 hours of community service.
“Now it’s their turn to give back,” Poelstra said. “Colleges and scholarships will look for that as well.”
Voyager also sets high expectations for the participants. The program administrators call each student on to his or her full potential and help them achieve goals.
“When you set the bar and expectations high, students will follow that,” Poelstra said.
The caliber of the students who participate in this program demonstrate its real success. Poelstra said that it is raising up leaders in the school and community. Ninety-five percent of Voyager participants pursue post-graduate studies. Also, Poelstra credits the Voyager program, in part, with keeping gang activity to a minimum.
Poelstra said she hopes the students will “see what the expectations are of employers for their generation of kids. It’s an opportunity to network, and an opportunity also for the business people to see who the Voyager kids are.”