Founded in 2000 by a former Wall Street banker, Gerald Chertavian, the year-long program provides on-the-job training, education and personal development skills to thousands of low-income urban youth, in an effort to close what Chertavian calls a “historic and widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.” In its 12th year, Year Up lists some impressive statistics: 80 percent of Year Up’s graduates are employed or in school full time within four months of completing the program. Employed graduates average about $15 an hour, more than double the minimum wage, and experts estimate that spending 12 months at Year Up will increase graduates’ lifetime earnings by $1 million. That’s a lot of potential tax revenue, argues Chertavian.
In Chertavian’s new book, A Year Up: How a Pioneering Program Teaches Young Adults Real Skills for Real Jobs with Real Success, he describes the importance of giving urban youth the skills they need to go to work. The Fiscal Times recently talked with him about the program.
The Fiscal Times (TFT): How can programs like Year Up help close the income gap?
Gerald Chertavian (GC): Ideally we’d like to change [society’s] perceptions of these young adults from liabilities to assets. During the first six months of the program, they learn attitudinal, behavior, and communication skills, and the second part is learning technical or financial skills. Students are given a stipend and they are enrolled in college or community college. We have advisers and social workers on staff, and it’s a very high expectation environment. If you are late for class you could lose $20 of the $30 stipend you would have earned that day. Students are also placed in one of 250 different companies in this country – Google, eBay, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Coca-Cola. And those companies are generally experiencing a skills gap in hiring, especially in middle skills bracket, and our graduates become incredible assets.
TFT: What do you mean by middle skills?
GC: Middle skills jobs now represent about 30 percent of jobs in America. They require more than a high school degree but often less than a four-year degree. Today, most people get their post-secondary education while they’re working, yet our federal policy, funding and Pell grants have not caught up with that.
TFT: What do you think makes Year Up more successful than other similar programs?
GC: The main difference is those first six months we surround young adults with caring adults, both advisors and mentors. We also create peer learning groups, where students are helping one another. And we focus very heavily on professional skills rather than hard skills like fixing a computer. Career readiness skills are critical to employers and other workforce programs sometimes overlook them. We also pay attention to corporate demand and meet their needs.
TFT: How can more programs like this help our current economic situation?
GC: We have to engage these young people if we are going to have a healthy economy and competitive country. This group represents about 20 percent of young adults in this economy. We need to recognize it is not about their ability but their opportunity. By encouraging [similar] programs, working with a coalition of employers, and creating the partnerships needed, we can create a more level playing field for young people from poor backgrounds.
TFT: Is the American Dream still attainable through hard work for these young adults?
GC: Research would show that mobility in this country has declined and several western European countries have greater mobility than America. One hundred million Americans are living on less than two-times the poverty level. Higher education costs continue to grow faster than health care costs. A lot of young people don’t know how to get from Point A to Point B. And it doesn’t have to be the way it operates. Our community colleges can do a better job in preparing young people for careers. We have a growing skills gap in this country. The good news is we have a lot of young people who want to be part of that economic mainstream, but it will take the funding and a willingness to believe in them.
TFT: What is your view on government assistance programs such as food stamps and subsidized housing? Do you think they help or hurt young people?
GC: There is a difference between a safety net and an opportunity. You will have a percentage of people who may be part of a multi-generational, institutional cycle of poverty, but that is the minority. The majority just want an opportunity and find great dignity in having a job. There’s a role for a safety net, but I’m not a big believer in hands-out. Year Up gives a hand-up. We expect a lot from them and want them to have high standards for themselves. We’ll support them on their journeys but they have to work hard for it.
TFT: Have you seen people in the program go through a transformation in which they start to have more pride and positivity towards their work?
GC: Yes, to watch some of these young people transform their lives is nothing short of inspirational. They’ve used their hardships to increase their resilience and become stronger. We had a woman sleeping in Central Park at night in the cold and still getting to our program at 8:30 a.m. ready to work hard. We’re not doing it for them, they’re doing it for themselves.
TFT: You place Year Up students in internships with big companies – would they have had access to this before the program?
GC: Many haven’t even been inside a glass building before or been to Wall Street even though they grew up a few blocks away. We shouldn’t have poverty of opportunity in this country: mobility and opportunity are distinctly American values, not Democratic or Republican ones. Focusing on that is probably the best thing we can do to try and rebuild a strong economy.