How did you get your first real break in business? For Gerald Chertavian, his sister-in-law recommended him to her former boss at a major Wall Street bank; he quickly landed a job, which led to a successful professional career. But those same opportunities elude many young people – a disparity Chertavian hopes to correct with the nonprofit job training organization he founded and leads, Year Up. “Eighty percent of job interviews are gotten through some sort of personal referral or recommendation,” says Chertavian. “If you’re not in that group, you’re competing for 20% of the jobs, not 100%. So a lack of business or social networks is a huge barrier that we address in Year Up by connecting students to mentors, guest speakers, and preparing them in their internships so they walk out of there with 20 people they can go to for advice.”
Chertavian, author of the recent New York Times bestseller A Year Up: How a Pioneering Program Teaches Young Adults Real Skills for Real Jobs -With Real Success, says the first challenge is shifting public perceptions. “The population of young adults we serve is looked at as economic liabilities, rather than economic assets, and that’s categorically not true. They are assets, and if you had an asset, you’d think about investing in, and taking care of, that asset.”
Year Up, which trains at-risk young adults for several months before placing them in skilled internships with top companies, starts with a focus on what Chertavian calls the “ABCs” – “attitudinal, behavioral, and communication skills.” Assuming you have basic academic skills, he says, “you can learn what you want to learn through hard work. And a good employer will teach you what you want to learn as long as you show the right attitude and behaviors. They’re looking for reliability, work ethic, a positive attitude, adaptability, and a willingness to learn. When we think about the workplace, people think about hard skills being dominant, but they’re not. The employer realizes knowledge will shift quickly, and there’s a half-life to knowledge in this world.”
Chertavian argues that Year Up participants, many of whom are economically disadvantaged minorities, bring several benefits to the workforce. First, he says, their understanding of cultural diversity will be useful as the American population becomes more heterogeneous. “If you’re only dealing with the majority, you’re not going to be a relevant leader in this country,” he says. “We’re at a real cusp point where you can still get away with it now, but it’s going to come true in our lifetimes. The best thing we can do is prepare people to lead in a much more diverse environment and see that as one of our national assets and one of the things that makes America strong.”
Second, Year Up participants – who may have experienced a variety of personal difficulties – often have a different mindset than their job-hopping peers. “We think our young adults bring resiliency and loyalty,” says Chertavian. “We deal with millennial-age young people, but they’re not millennial attitudinally. They’re hungry, motivated, and very hard-working.”
Finally, says Chertavian, “we believe in a strengths-based model: within every adversity are the seeds of something more positive than the original adversity itself, and someone who may have gone through a challenge in their life may be more robust.” Year Up participants have a hard-fought maturity: “They know what it’s like to have nothing.” Their perspective, he says, is “I know there’s a chance of layoffs on Wall Street, but I’ve been on the street homeless. Now I have skills, knowledge, a network, connections. The job is not how I find my security; it’s internal.”
So how can employers get involved in helping to open up access for disadvantaged young people? One possibility, of course, is to become a Year Up partner, as companies like Google and Bank of America have done. But there are also a variety of other possibilities, such as allowing students to shadow you at work, offering summer internships, or even speaking to a school about what your career is like. “For an affluent person, they’ve gotten that information from a fire hose every day of their lives for 20 years,” he says, but many poorer students aren’t aware of the vast array of career opportunities. Finally, embracing mentoring – which is what sparked Chertavian’s own interest in youth development work – is a great start. “Everyone can touch one person,” he says.
What is your company doing to close the opportunity divide?
This post originally appeared on the Forbes website on November 19, 2012.
Dorie Clark is CEO of Clark Strategic Communications and the author of Reinventing You: Define Your Brand, Imagine Your Future (Harvard Business Review Press). She is a strategy consultant who has worked with clients including Google, Yale University, and the Ford Foundation. Listen to her podcasts or follow her on Twitter.