By: Jeremy Loudenback
One of the nation’s most promising programs linking current and former foster youth with employment started its work in a Placer County supermarket. From there, the Northern California nonprofit iFoster found jobs for 750 young people over the past five years, drawing on a network of 47 companies from the coffee giant Starbucks to the Raley’s grocery chain and the FedEx delivery service.
Along the way, youth ages 15 to 24 got help with anything that could have otherwise tripped them up.
“Our youth can earn a job,” said iFoster CEO Serita Cox, “but if they don’t have permanent housing, if they don’t have transportation to get their job, or a reliable phone to call a boss, or proper clothes, they won’t keep that job very long.”
A growing interest in the importance of connecting foster youth with gainful employment has prompted a search for how well and why programs like iFoster work. At an online seminar on Tuesday, researchers with the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, discussed the success of two well-known models, iFoster Jobs in California and MY TIME in Illinois. More substantive research findings will be released this spring.
Researcher Jiffy Lansing told webinar participants that although it’s widely understood that former foster youth are less likely than their peers to find and keep a well-paying job, not much is known about the effectiveness of programs that help them gain a foothold in the workforce.
The Urban Institute has focused on one of the few successful efforts operating on a broad scale — the jobs program run by the Truckee-based iFoster. The national nonprofit is now working to employ hundreds of current and former foster youth in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and other parts of the state, by connecting them with employers looking to fill jobs.
Young people are trained in how to build a resume and interview, as well as soft skills, such as how to act and dress on the job. Young people must “stand on their own two feet” during the application and interview process, Cox said, but once they’re hired, staff and mentors provide ongoing coaching and mentoring.
Urban Institute researchers found that 71% of 523 iFoster participants completed the job training program. Additionally, 46% of the sample went on to get a job or an internship after finishing the training.
Debbie Reddic, 21, is now studying psychology at California State University, Northridge, but recalled breaking down in tears during her first iFoster job training — it felt like too much to handle on top of school.
But through the support of the program’s staff, Reddic said, she learned important skills like being on time, and how to be courteous and communicate effectively with bosses and co-workers. Moral support from staff — who called to check on her after she landed a job with AmeriCorps, was also key to her success.
“They treat you like family,” Reddic said. “Anything you need, it’s there.”
The active support of staff members also plays a central role at MY TIME, an employment program for foster youth run by the Chicago foster care agency Lawrence Hall. The organization uses professional mentors to work with foster youth ages 16 through 21, building job readiness and retention.
Over a five-day training session, foster youth work on soft skills, building resumes and mock interviewing in a group. Mentors and social workers help them address barriers and explore how work relates to the young people’s life goals.
“We often find that young people that have been really disconnected, they don’t know a ton of people intimately who work in jobs,” said MY TIME’s chief program officer Sean McGinnis on Tuesday’s webinar.
Once youth have absorbed the basics of how to submit a job application, mentors accompany them for a “mall crawl,” where they identify potential employers, practice asking store managers about job opportunities and drop off resumes. Mentors provide transportation to job interviews and the first day of work, and check in with participants for 90 days after a young person is hired.
“We really pride ourselves on being a coach, being a cheerleader, being a support for young people,” McGinnis said, “because too many young people in care don’t have those cheerleaders at home when things go well and when things don’t go well.”
In a sample size of 40 youth enrolled in the MY TIME program, Urban Institute researchers found that 58% were hired at least once. Collectively, those youth accounted for 130 job applications and completed 55 total job interviews.
Despite both iFoster and MY TIME showing some successful results, a rigorous impact evaluation may be difficult to complete. In addition to the small sample sizes, researchers would have to isolate the effect of the two models on foster youth, who may be participating in many different programs, said Lansing. The two programs the Urban Institute team is evaluating also lack long-term data on wages and length of employment.
However, Lansing said that the two types of employment programs for foster youth have so far yielded important insights.
“Harder-to-reach young people may need a supportive adult and a number of developmental experiences to build toward success in the workplace,” Lansing said. “Whereas closer-to-work-ready young people who already have a supportive adult in their lives can really be helped by program connections to employers that have career pathways.”