By Melissa Connaughton
High school senior Betzy Villa has been entrusted with a huge responsibility: identifying local attorneys who may be interested in working on a special project for the Dispute Resolution Center of Yakima and Kittitas Counties.
Working on a 90-hour internship organized by Yakima’s YouthWorks summer jobs program, Villa is getting a glimpse at what it’s really like to work in an attorney’s office. This internship at the Dispute Resolution Center is far more than just answering the phone; it’s an introduction to a career, providing mentoring, career exploration and work experience for youth interested in a legal career.
“I’ve gotten to observe the actual dispute resolution process and see how mediators help both sides come to an agreement about what works best for both parties,” Villa says. She also has acquired some hard skills, such as creating Excel spreadsheets and organized records.
The statewide YouthWorks initiative started in 2014 when Employment Security joined forces with the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction to help create, implement and oversee it. Tim Probst, director of Employment Security’s Workforce Development Strategic Initiatives, has been instrumental in creating a strong partnership between the two agencies to build a program that relies on local experts from WorkSource, Workforce Development Councils, community training providers and school districts to benefit both youth and businesses.
“This is all about the kids,” says Probst. “They want to explore the careers they are interested in firsthand and get to know real people who work in those careers. YouthWorks makes that happen. That means more youth heading straight into great careers and less unemployment.”
YouthWorks is a catalyst, not a program. It provides a comprehensive employment training curriculum to at-risk youth ages 16-24. As a foundational element, YouthWorks participants receive intensive soft skills training to equip them with a deep understanding of the subtleties of the workplace.
“Building these skills is crucial for success in life as a whole,” says Sarah Wilkins, Youth Initiatives Coordinator for the Pacific Mountain Workforce Development Council (PacMtn). “Success in the workplace will allow for entire lifetimes of thriving, instead of merely surviving.”
YouthWorks participants learn about a wide range of careers through seminars, field trips, industry study experiences, and other exploratory opportunities. They also get access to resources to help them determine the pathway entry points for their chosen careers, including post-secondary education, apprenticeships and comprehensive work experience training.
YouthWorks’ career exploration process wouldn’t be complete without business mentorships. Youth are matched with mentors from a wide range of industries to help them learn more about what’s necessary to successfully navigate different career paths. Through these mentorships, youth have an opportunity to connect with local industry professionals, ask questions and learn about opportunities and challenges in their chosen field.
“For many youth, their first chance to be in a real work environment gives them a vision for life after high school and opens their eyes to new possibilities of what they can accomplish with schooling and determination,” says Matt Fairbank, executive director of the Dispute Resolution Center where Villa serves as an intern.
Since many of these youth face a number of barriers to employment and find it difficult to get a job on their own, YouthWorks is instrumental in helping them gain meaningful work experience.
The final step in the YouthWorks framework is placement in 90-hour paid internships, where youth gain firsthand work experience. By providing youth with this invaluable on-site experience, YouthWorks provides them with necessary tools to secure their own work in the future.
As YouthWorks participant Yesenia Cabrera explains, “This program has helped shape me into becoming an even better person. Now with their help, I have gotten my first job experience, and instead of it being the cliché “bad” first job, it has become the most memorable outstanding first job.”
Author Melissa Connaughton is the YouthWorks coordinator and works at the Employment Security Department.