Providing Virtual Workforce and Training Opportunities for Baltimore Youth

Posted September 4, 2020
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Young person learning online.

Dur­ing a typ­i­cal sum­mer, Baltimore’s Youth­Works pro­gram places thou­sands of young peo­ple — most of them from com­mu­ni­ties of col­or — with hun­dreds of employ­ers across the city and sur­round­ing area to help them gain work expe­ri­ence. But sum­mer 2020’s pro­gram was any­thing but typical.

As the COVID-19 pan­dem­ic shut down schools, gov­ern­ment agen­cies, restau­rants, non­prof­its and oth­er work­places across the city, Youth­Works had to adapt quick­ly — going almost entire­ly vir­tu­al with online edu­ca­tion­al and work oppor­tu­ni­ties from mid-July to late August for rough­ly 4,500 young peo­ple ages 14 to 21.

Because hun­dreds of employ­ers were unable to par­tic­i­pate this year — due to the eco­nom­ic down­turn and remote-work require­ments — Youth­Works had to launch some­thing new: a vir­tu­al pro­gram that offered paid edu­ca­tion­al and train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties to some 1,200 youth who could not be placed in jobs or internships.

Young peo­ple in Bal­ti­more need these oppor­tu­ni­ties to improve their employ­ment skills and gain wages while also engag­ing with car­ing adults, men­tors and oth­er youth,” says Jason Perkins-Cohen, direc­tor of the May­or’s Office of Employ­ment Devel­op­ment (MOED), which runs the sum­mer jobs pro­gram. We want­ed to pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for as many young peo­ple to par­tic­i­pate as possible.”

Youth­Works — which is sup­port­ed by Bal­ti­more City, the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion and oth­er fun­ders — built a remote learn­ing and train­ing pro­gram that cre­at­ed addi­tion­al oppor­tu­ni­ties for youth par­tic­i­pants this sum­mer. This sto­ry con­tains lessons for work­force pro­grams seek­ing to make sim­i­lar moves.

Build­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties beyond employ­ment and internships

In April, MOED part­nered with Bal­ti­more Corps, a non­prof­it, to build a new vir­tu­al pro­gram meant to pro­vide oppor­tu­ni­ties for youth to devel­op job skills, give them oppor­tu­ni­ties to explore career options and pay them $11 an hour.

The part­ners moved fast, speak­ing with offi­cials in oth­er cities, such as Detroit and Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to under­stand how oth­er juris­dic­tions were imple­ment­ing sum­mer jobs pro­grams amid the pan­dem­ic. Based on their research, Youth­Works staff decid­ed the pro­gram would use a dig­i­tal plat­form called Career Edge, which offered a cur­ricu­lum for work­force train­ing and career build­ing. The plat­form includ­ed videos and exer­cis­es on var­i­ous employ­ment top­ics, such as inter­view­ing, job search­ing, resume build­ing and career exploration.

Bring­ing on job coaches

Start­ing in April, Bal­ti­more Corps began recruit­ing about 100 job coach­es, using con­nec­tions with part­ner orga­ni­za­tions and job adver­tise­ments to find can­di­dates, then screen­ing and inter­view­ing them remote­ly. Coach­es respon­si­bil­i­ties include facil­i­tat­ing dai­ly activ­i­ties with cohorts of 15 to 20 youth and guid­ing them on lessons to be com­plet­ed through Career Edge.

Coach­es were quick­ly trained on the plat­form and on pos­i­tive youth devel­op­ment prac­tices by local non­prof­its that work with young peo­ple, such as Code in the Schools, HeartSmiles, Thread and the Urban Alliance. Lever­ag­ing these part­ner­ships was cru­cial,” says Sarah Flam­mang, vice pres­i­dent of oper­a­tions and admin­is­tra­tion for Bal­ti­more Corps. We were grate­ful to have such expe­ri­enced part­ners who could help the coach­es bet­ter con­nect with youth and antic­i­pate their needs.”

Giv­ing young peo­ple a voice

MOED want­ed youth to be involved in build­ing the pro­gram, too, despite the short time­frame for devel­op­ing it. The office hired about a dozen young adults to test Career Edge in May and June to pro­vide feed­back before the pro­gram launched. We felt it was impor­tant to have youth involved in test­ing and refin­ing the pro­gram­mat­ic mate­r­i­al as soon as pos­si­ble,” Perkins-Cohen says. Their per­spec­tive on the mate­r­i­al was key and gave us con­fi­dence in mov­ing forward.”

The young review­ers offered numer­ous ideas, includ­ing adding lessons about self-care and per­son­al well­ness. They also rec­om­mend­ed adding videos pro­duced by youth to include in the col­lec­tion of record­ings already avail­able through Career Edge. The youth believed these videos would help par­tic­i­pants bet­ter con­nect with the content.

Youth­Works and its part­ners asked some of the young review­ers to record videos them­selves. Staff added sev­er­al to the plat­form that the young peo­ple pro­duced on a range of top­ics, includ­ing time man­age­ment and finan­cial respon­si­bil­i­ty. That was a cool and unique piece,” Flam­mang says. Youth helped to make the con­tent more rel­e­vant to their peers.”

Allow­ing for flexibility

When the sum­mer pro­gram start­ed, job coach­es were giv­en flex­i­bil­i­ty to craft con­tent based on young people’s inter­ests and needs through video check-ins and the Career Edge plat­form, which MOED and part­ners start­ed refer­ring to as Youth­Works Edge after adding cus­tomized material.

Morg­yn Far­num, a job coach hired for the sum­mer, says she used var­i­ous strate­gies to keep her youth inter­est­ed and engaged in the work — a chal­lenge for those facil­i­tat­ing vir­tu­al learn­ing with young peo­ple. For instance, in one activ­i­ty, she paired more out­spo­ken youth with those who were qui­eter to prac­tice inter­views. It broke down some of their per­son­al bar­ri­ers and anx­i­eties about inter­views,” Far­num says, of the qui­eter youth in her cohort. They loved it, espe­cial­ly being able to learn from their peers.”

Work­force pro­gram­ming adapt­ing across the nation

Youth­Works’ expe­ri­ence mir­rors that of oth­er work­force groups that have had to change their strate­gies dur­ing the COVID-19 out­break — includ­ing by offer­ing more vir­tu­al oppor­tu­ni­ties. In June, the Aspen Insti­tute released a tool kit for sum­mer youth employ­ment pro­grams list­ing dig­i­tal resources, prac­tices and tools for pro­vid­ing remote services.

The COVID-19 pan­dem­ic has been chal­leng­ing for many work­force pro­grams,” says Sara Muempfer, senior asso­ciate with the Casey Foun­da­tion. We’ve been glad to see so many of these pro­grams — includ­ing those serv­ing Bal­ti­more — make changes to their pro­gram­ming to main­tain as much of their ser­vices as pos­si­ble. We hope oth­ers will learn from these examples.”

For its part, Youth­Works plans to con­tin­ue assess­ing its work this sum­mer to refine its remote offer­ings for young peo­ple. Even if busi­ness­es large­ly reopen next sum­mer, we still think hav­ing these remote oppor­tu­ni­ties will be impor­tant because they are so flex­i­ble and can be used for youth in many dif­fer­ent cir­cum­stances,” Perkins-Cohen says. We think they’ll be key offer­ings going for­ward and we’re excit­ed to keep build­ing them up.”

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