Youth-Business Mentoring

National and local business interests collaborate with a Madison non-profit to improve the job prospects of area teens. Staples, a major office supply retailer with 14 locations in Southern Wisconsin and Minnesota recently donated $5,000 in support of the Youth-Business Mentoring Program created by Common Wealth Development. Providing guidance through the hiring process, executives coach young people through the difficult task of landing their first position in the workforce.

Sonny Maly (left) and Kristofor Cooks on the job at Staples

“Our focus is on expanding the employment and financial opportunities available to young people,” said Tariq Pasha Saqqaf, youth programs director at CWD. “Especially those teens from poor families, it’s not just about improving their education but increasing their knowledge.”

Finding work in a recovering economy is never easy, particularly for young people just starting out.

“No one would hire me,” said Kristofor Cooks a senior at LaFollette High School. “I’d fill out applications and no one would even call me back.”

A very competitive job market has changed the employment landscape. Entry-level positions such as stock clerks and sales associates, traditionally staffed by teenagers, are being filled by workers of all ages. With limited experience and few basic skills teens today have great difficulty finding even jobs at minimum wage. In August 2009 the U.S. Department of Labor reported a national unemployment rate of almost 10 percent. Among teenagers (16-19) during that same period 25.5 percent are out of work, the most since 1948.

Teens who come from low-income families or single parent households are especially vulnerable to joblessness. While trying to graduate from high school these kids are looking to earn more than just a little pocket money. Cooks, 17, lives with his mother and a sister. The young man has to work to chip in to the family income. “My mom’s doing what she can to get through,” he said. “So I help her out.”

But undeterred by his circumstances Cooks is making his way. With skills acquired through the Youth-Business Mentoring Program he’s now working as a cashier at the Staples location at 6580 Monona Drive.

“I was in the program for month or so and they let me know that they believed in me,” Cooks said. “I guess I really stood out because I wanted it more and worked hard. They weren’t going to hire just anyone.”

A big part of the mentoring program at CWD is taking a teen’s natural drive and pointing him or her in the right direction. “I learned a lot about the interview process and came in pretty confident,” said Sonny Maly (18), a graduate of West High School and now a member of Staples’ sales staff. “It was a great way to get into a job without having to be nervous about the all ins and outs of getting started.”

Teens in the program receive job skills training from business executives like Staples district manager Paul Dugan. “We monitor everything from body language such as eye contact, to how they shake your hand. We check their dress and how professional they are in their greeting,” he said. “In a mock-interview process we go through and rate how they do and give them direct feedback.”

In a given year about 100 to 120 teens receive three weeks of job training. Fewer than 10 percent on average drop out for a variety of personal reasons, but those who remain are all but guaranteed to find work. “If you do the program and you stick with us. We’re going to find you a job,” said Tariq Pasha Saqqaf at CWD. “It’s going to be an extremely frustrating process. But that’s where we come in. The biggest thing that gets people jobs is a network professional relationships and we provide that.”

Since it was created in 1991 program graduates have been placed with several Madison area businesses that partner with CWD to spur teen job growth. In 2008 mentoring opportunities were expanded to include students from Madison East and West High Schools, Memorial, LaFollette and Sun Prairie.

“Our city-wide program is now possible thanks to new funding sources from Dane County, the city of Madison and charitable organizations like the Staples Foundation For Learning,” Saqqaf said.

Companies that include local grocer Metcalf Sentry, financial institutions Summit Credit Union and Homes Savings Bank and retailers like Marshals Department Store also provide their financial support to encourage youth employment training. Paul Dugan said his company’s charitable arm, the Staples Foundation For Learning, has contributed more than $17 Million toward job skills education for disadvantaged young people nation wide.

“To date Staples has donated $18,000 to Common Wealth since 2002,” Dugan said. “We’re a big company. But when you break it down to the local level we’re just a smaller group of associates and managers and we can do these kinds of things in our communities.”

This story originally appeared in the March issues of the Capital Region Business Journal philanthropy feature Good Works

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.