May 24, 2010

The Front Porch: Youth Get Ready for the Work World

By Mark Gesner
At the age of 17, Steve thought his ticket to a brighter future was wrapped up in a basketball. Jacob believed that after high school he would follow a path into the business world by attending college. Tiara also had her heart set on college and thought the key to her success was getting out of Wisconsin. This is a story about how some plans get redrawn, some dreams get deferred, and other visions get realized in ways never imagined. This is also a true story about how three young adults found their way forward through area workforce development youth employment and training programs.

Steve’s hoop dreams were dashed when he was kicked off the team for reasons that at the time seemed unjust. The decision left him disillusioned with high school so he changed course and sought a high school equivalency diploma. Soon he became bored with this route, and decided to get his GED so he could head off to college. A basketball scholarship earned him a stint at a university, but after freshmen year, he had enough and began looking for work. Following short gigs working in childcare and an election campaign, he came back home to Racine and starting searching for a job. The search went on for months.

Jacob’s quest to earn a business degree was delayed when his father’s business started to suffer and home finances were strained. “I wanted to go to school but dad was out of work,” he explained. “I was concerned about my family, and I wanted to make the right choices. I needed time to figure things out so that I could be financially stable.” Eventually, Jacob thought he should enter the work world first and take classes at night – the future was not yet certain.

Tiara was clear that education was in her future, but as a teenager with few resources, jobs during high school had to be part of her present. She started with working at a fast food restaurant, and then soon found her way into a job working with kids whose challenges were much like her own. The pathway to college was in her reach.

This is where the stories of Steve, Jacob and Tiara intertwine. Each of these youth found their way to a workforce development youth employment and training program in Racine or Kenosha that propelled them towards a brighter future. Steve and Jacob interviewed and earned spots in the Racine “E3” program where they gained work experience doing landscaping and helping at the Racine Family YMCA. Tiara worked her way into a Program Specialist position at the Kenosha Boys & Girls Club Madrigrano Center. 

Steve explained that the E3 program was challenging. “It was filled with obstacles in terms of working with peers and having to step up and take a leadership role,” he said.  “I learned about working on a team, how to be more patient, and how to step up when opportunities came up.” Ultimately, not only did he begin earning steady income, but he also earned the respect of his supervisors and peers, who often used the word “integrity” to describe Steve’s strongest attribute. The accolades for Jacob also started coming in.  “I wondered what the older members at the Y would think of me,” Jacob said. “They ended up being pretty cool. They would joke with me and they showed me respect.” 

Today, Steve, Jacob and Tiara see their youth employment experiences as stepping stones to bigger goals. Steve is enrolling at Gateway Technical College in the new Wind Turbine program, and he ultimately hopes to pursue the new Sustainable Management Degree through the University of Wisconsin – Parkside. Jacob will be going to college to get his business management associates degree so he can help his family’s landscaping business to succeed. “Once I accomplish that, I’d like to start my own restaurant.” And Tiara is about to graduate from college with a BA in social work. She explained that the workforce development program “opened up my opportunities for me to grow. I have been able to develop job skills and people skills that help me now and will help me in the future.”

Last summer, the Racine and Kenosha youth employment programs employed and trained well over 500 youth ages 14 to 24. Thanks to scores of partners in the private, nonprofit and public sectors, the youth experienced work in manufacturing, landscaping, entrepreneurial business, senior centers and elsewhere. While last summer’s programs were fueled largely by stimulus dollars, the effort was so successful that now various local partners are partnering with county government to sustain the programs. As in the past, the programs will focus youth on getting “work ready” and understanding how education and training figure in to accomplishing career goals.

Steve, Jacob and Tiara each realize their journeys are just beginning. In fact, Steven and Jacob are actively looking for work this summer and are eager to earn a decent wage to support their educational aspirations. They come equipped with work experience, resumes, state certified work place certificates, and other credentials earned through their workforce development experience. “We have come a long way,” Jacob said. And they have their sights set on going a whole lot further.
Front Porch Rockers: 

Kids on Campus:  Do you know a kid between the ages of 6 and 12 who is still looking for something interesting and fun to do this summer? At this new UW-Parkside camp, kids can learn about computers, science and the humanities in the morning, and kick back for some fun in the sun in the afternoon. Learn more at:
Keyword: child care center.

Health Club for the Brain: Learn about the power of the web and technology by participating in a day camp for nonprofit leaders. Join UW-Parkside staff for a trip to Bucketworks in Milwaukee on June 8 and give your brain the spa treatment. Learn more at:

Off the Streets and Into the Workforce:  On June 21st, Mr. Hasan Davis, Deputy Commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice, comes to UW-Parkside.  to talk with E3 youth about leaving the streets behind and finding a successful career path. He will speak with area mentors in the afternoon to help them guide kids towards more productive futures. The presentations are free to the public; learn more at

Mark Gesner is the Director of Community Development at UW-Parkside’s Center for Community Partnerships. Contact him at The University will support youth workforce development efforts this summer by hosting worksites in Racine and on campus in Kenosha.

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