Jun 5, 2020 by

Kenneth M. Smith

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) global pandemic has forced an economic downturn in America and around the world, stifling the immediate goals of a generation of future leaders in the process. 

For many, the ramifications of social distancing to avoid infection have caused frustration and anger; they have meant missing one’s commencement or prom, reassessing higher education enrollment in the year ahead or even, losing their job. Yet for others, particularly for those  who were already facing barriers to a steady path to eventual success, the impact has been far greater.

For 40 years, Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG), a state-based national non-profit organization dedicated to supporting young people of great potential, has brought Specialist support to over 1 million youth. Through Project-Based Learning, Trauma Informed Care, and Employer Engagement, they help promising men and women chart their own path to meaningful employment. 

In this environment, how are those young people coping and how is the organization transitioning? I had the opportunity to put these questions to JAG Co-Founder and President Ken Smith.

Q: The COVID-19 Pandemic has caused a global economic downturn. How have America’s would-be graduates and, in particular, the young men and women that Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) support been particularly afflicted?
KEN SMITH: The answer is in every possible way. The evidence is clear from the Fed these past few weeks – The evidence has been clear to us since the crisis started. Our young men and women are being hit the hardest, the earliest and, we fear, for the longest.

They are the ones in a service industry that’s been decimated. They have no economic cushion. Therefore, within days, they’re in financial trouble. We’ve actually had lots of cases of our Team having to assist in finding food and shelter and clothing.

Bearing in mind some of these students’ homes are not good ones – They’re dysfunctional. Finding a way to get them out of places when we’ve got this isolation, a ‘stay at home’ policy is challenging. There’s all kinds of recent evidence that shows that teachers across the country are reporting a declining lack of engagement. Well, for many, they weren’t engaged in the first place.

And then the schools were caught, like almost all of us, just flat-footed. They were not ready for a ‘virtual’ delivery. The lack of engagement, the lack of education, the lack of economic capability has made us see really enormously challenging circumstances and situations.

With that great concern, we also are finding that, as young people will tell us all the time, we are their family. We are their lifeline. In some cases, our Specialists are the few responsible adults that they can count on to help them through this crisis. So, it is an extraordinary moment. Amazingly enough, and not by design, we’re in exactly the right place to support, at precisely the right time.

Q: Would you say, in a sense, JAG serve as first responders for a lot of these young kids that are struggling?

KEN SMITH: Absolutely first responders and second and third and fourth, because they are going through a sequence of initial shock. All of a sudden, they’ve lost their jobs and so have other members of the family. I talked the other day to a young man in Kansas. His family, bless them, had taken in seven foster children the previous year. He had two other natural siblings. So, think about that household. A mom and a dad. A mom that has got a heart problem and can’t do much. The dad who’s fortunately working, but then nine more people in the home that need help and support.

Our Jobs for New Jersey Graduates Affiliate leaders have been meeting with JNJG students regularly throughout this and confirmed both our fears about engagement and that JAG Specialists are doing their jobs. They report that students are completely disengaged and distraught about not being in school. They miss the social interaction that school provides and the feeling of “family”. When asked them what would motivate them, it tied directly back to JAG Specialists. They said that their specialists are the only ones checking up on them. Only the specialists are asking how they are doing—if they are safe, healthy, have enough to eat, etc. 

40% of the presently unemployed are making less than $40,000 a year, which highlights the economic as well as the educational impact the virus had placed upon the lowest income and the most at-risk segments of the population.

Q: What makes Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) unique? How have students in years’ past been drawn to seeking out JAG support?

KEN SMITH: Where many programs just helped kids get through school or others helped them find work, we found there was usually a gap where these young people were unemployed in between, and then the government would step in with some sort of help. So, when we fashioned the JAG model, our business leaders said, “…that’s nuts! The objective is to help these young men and women get through school. The justification to go through school is so you get a better job”.

However, we have to take the responsibility to help them find and secure work; and then get a raise or a promotion over 12 months, to make sure they are really engaged.

We hold our frontline staff folks called, “Specialists” accountable. They are accountable for their students’ graduation. They’re accountable for their employment. They’re accountable for those students going on to higher education, and they’re accountable to see to it that all the issues that get in the way of accomplishing those goals get solved. So, JAG is certainly unique in that case.

We’re also unique, because we’re remarkably low-cost. The average youth employment program in the country, give or take a little bit, is roughly $3,000 a person. JAG has been able to deliver the kind of results that we’ve gotten at a fraction of that cost per person. So, it’s highly cost-effective.

Our results speak for themselves – We get 90% graduation rates. We’ve doubled the rate, more than that – JAG students are employed at a full-time rate 230% higher than 18-20 year olds, compared to all kids in the country. Not just those who are more challenged; 290% for African American young men and women. That’s why 13 U.S. Governors serve on our National Board of Directors – the largest number of Governors to serve on any board in the country.

Q: On both sides of the aisle?

KEN SMITH: On both sides of the aisle. All across the country. They’re joined by leaders like Mark Morial, the President of the National Urban League (NUL); Johnny Taylor, the President of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), representing the hiring-side of companies around the country, so lots of good, direct relationships here. Our board also hosts C-suite executives of the Fortune-500 caliber. We also include two highly-successful former JAG students – One’s the first Latina mayor of Tolleson, Arizona and the other is leading the implementation of a new innovative technology company in Ohio.
And so, I think we’re also unique in being such an effective example of a public-private partnership (PPP) delivering results.

Q: I understand JAG has just endeavored on a social media campaign to support its students, with the help of T-Mobile and a series of well-known celebrities. What is the mission of this partnership?

KEN SMITH: This is an extraordinary opportunity; a terrific endorsement by T-Mobile to say that Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) and the work we’re doing. To run the ads supporting JAG on iHeartRadio stations across the country with celebrities and leaders from around the country promoting their commencement speeches was terrific. It recognizes the enormous efforts that our young people have had to make to complete school and graduate.

These young people, there’s stories I could tell you as to how hard they’ve had to work, how much they’ve had to overcome to graduate. And here they are, at this extraordinary moment and they can’t go to the graduation ceremony. They can’t go to the prom. They can’t go.

T-Mobile and iHeart Radio have taken this on, and T-Mobile’s financial commitment to JAG is urgently needed. But it’s also important to just raise awareness that there are solutions here – There are ways to help young people succeed in school and on the job. And frankly, it is critical to help us get visibility with the state legislatures, governors, mayors and school boards across the country, those have to make some really tough decisions on how to use very limited resources. We want them to decide that Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) needs to be a priority.

Q: Simply put, when schools were ordered to close, underfunded districts across the country suddenly found themselves struggling to support students stuck at home. As every week of school closures drags on, many underserved students are falling further behind. How is JAG helping right this dynamic?

KEN SMITH: That’s the right question – They are falling further behind. One of the most recent surveys of teachers across the country shows an enormous downturn in engagement, especially for vulnerable populations. It’s another reason why JAG, as hopelessly biased as I am, is critically important; because it is the lifeline. It’s [the Specialist] is often the one person the student hears from. It’s a place to go when there’s a problem to solve. It’s also the means by which they are going to complete school. Whatever the standards are, in school districts across the country, we’ll meet them.

So, if they’re a junior, if they’re a freshman, sophomore, or a senior, we’re going to make sure that they complete school on whatever basis the schools decide. And, crucially important to all of those seniors, help them answer questions like, “…how do I get into the worst job market in American history? How do I succeed? Should I go on to higher education? If I should, how do I do that? What are the means by which I can get there? And how do I keep my body and soul and my family taken care of”?

So, the response here has been tremendous; I’m very proud of folks at the front lines. We spend a lot of time making sure we listen to them. And it’s a really difficult circumstance out there and it will get worse as this proceeds. But fortunately, our folks are there and just when they’re needed.

Q: How have JAG Specialists virtualized their means of support; pivoted during this heightened period of uncertainty?

KEN SMITH: So, I’d love to tell you we had it all ready and in the can, ready to go, but we didn’t.

However, with 1,400 locations, active in 39 states, JAG has been impressively moving towards a more-virtual environment, with virtual delivery systems, online staff training, project-based learning modules, digital liaison with employers, mentoring, with help from our friends at AT&T who have been extraordinarily great supporters. They have used various technological means to mentor students in rural locations, [who] otherwise never would have had the chance to talk to a Specialist in that kind of an environment.

So, we were well along, but not far enough along.

We’ve actually undertaken a series of crash projects to get our final sets of ‘virtual delivery’ of content in place; to achieve what we call our 37 ‘Employability Skills’ in a virtual environment. Tackling virtual engagement, well, the good news is that our staff is comprised of relatively young people across the country, so they quickly ‘get it’. Most of our young people were pretty on-point with social media.

That said, as time goes along, you’ve got to keep finding other means of engagement. Can we run competitive events to learn job-skills virtually? How do we run leadership development programs? How do we bring speakers to our students virtually, to those that are interested in engaging and looking ahead to different jobs?

So, we’re in a real campaign now to build a repertoire of tactics and techniques that can further engage, because we’re looking between here and mid-August at a minimum to keep these young people connected and to help them into the job market. It may be longer than that, in some places that aren’t able to open school. Even those that can open school, they might have two days at the campus and two days at home to provide for social distancing, so we still have to deliver virtually.

So, we will have, over the next three to four months, a completely virtual means of delivering the JAG model, in both training and delivery, by our staff in place.

Q: Any final takeaways?

KEN SMITH: Just using JAG only as a source of guidance, the much larger issue that we are very fearful of is the risk of the “lost generation.”

There is every risk that a major portion of this generation who will have been shut out of school due to COVID-19, shut out of the job market, essentially shut out of the country’s economy and greater society, will lose hope, or due to the pressures of trying to make a living or to take care of their families, will decide to drop out.

“Why go back? It’s a mess. I don’t have time for it. I can’t get into the job market, because there’s 33 million people out there competing for it, so I give up.”

We are very fearful that the combination of circumstances that this virus has created is a real risk for our country in losing a generation of talent.

Our call to action to all of our friends in education, those that are providing support of all kinds at the community level and to government officials is to worry about this and to take action.

Look to foster means of engagement; new ways of providing support and assistance. Help us find pathways to make sure our young people do complete their studies; they do get a chance to get into the labor market in some form or fashion.

We need to move pretty quickly on this, because we can already sense, and I know many school teachers, both in surveys and individually, have suggested they’re losing the engagement already they once had with some of these young people.

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