Motivating and engaging youth in the workforce

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When youths lack the basic “soft skills” to engage effectively in the workplace, businesses face a costly and time-consuming training and assimilation process. In 2010 the Southern Colorado Business Partnership hosted a summit for area business leaders, to better understand critical issues that impede business growth. While many topics were discussed, the one that resonated most was the challenge presented by incorporating entry-level youths into organizations. The lack of basic soft skills needed to engage effectively in the workforce was distancing employers from job-seekers.

Once it had identified this as a primary employer concern throughout the region, the SCBP developed an innovative program to address the problem. The SCBP’s Engaging Youth Program (EYP) was created specifically to help young workers understand the importance of showing up for work on time, suitable work place dress, proper communication, dealing with customers and the ability to socialize appropriately within the workforce.

With partial grant funding from the state, the Engaging Youth Program became a collaborative effort of the SCBP (representing business), workforce centers (led by the Pikes Peak Workforce Center), and the Southern Colorado Higher Education Consortium (community colleges and universities). The collaborative quickly learned that today’s employers require both technical skills and emotional intelligence to build an effective workforce.

A broad range of experiences — filtered through culture, personality, age, gender and identity — make for a rich mix of perspective. However, that mix can also cause communication breakdowns. Giving or receiving unclear messaging is the primary obstacle to human relations and, ultimately, to productivity. With EYP, soft skills training includes, but is not limited to, behavior, teamwork, attitude, socialization, interpersonal relations and customer interaction.

The EYP starts with bootcamps to kick off each new program session, that feature a daylong training program focused on soft skills and work readiness, created by the Pikes Peak Workforce Center. Once bootcamps are completed, the next phase of the program matches each participant with a business mentor, who offers a 16-hour internship at their company to focus on practical application of the initial soft skills training. The mentoring intensive offers a non-threatening environment for better understanding of employer expectations.

At the end of the brief internship, students and their mentors return to a bootcamp for a two-hour debrief to share what was learned during the practical work and coaching sessions, give program feedback and receive certificates of completion.

The focus of the EYP is on high school students, under-employed youths and college students between the ages of 17 and 24. High school students are considered most at risk for first being unprepared to enter the workforce, then tending to remain under-employed if they do not graduate. The underemployed have moved into the workforce with little or no formal education and need added training to meet the needs of future employers. College students who attempt to balance work and school need to graduate to build a solid career path.

The Engaging Youth Program targets six regional markets: the Colorado Springs area including Teller County (in partnership with UCCS and Pikes Peak Community College), Pueblo (in partnership with Colorado State University-Pueblo and Pueblo Community College), Canon City (in partnership with Pueblo Community College-Fremont Campus), La Junta (in partnership with Otero Junior College), Lamar (in partnership with Lamar Community College), and Trinidad/Walsenburg (in partnership with Trinidad State Junior College) — with support from workforce centers in each community.

Randy Scott is president of the Southern Colorado Business Partnership.