A decade before he walked through the door of the Work & Learn program in New Orleans, Deshon Leggett, 16, knew the kind of work that excited him.
When he was about 6, he began looking through his uncle’s toolbox whenever his bike pedals came loose or its chain popped off. At first, he made repairs through trial and error. It grew into the skill that defines him: “I like fixing on stuff,” he said.
Soon after mastering his bike, he was tapped as the family repairman. “If my little brothers had a flat, I’d take the tire off and patch it,” he said. Now, whenever his uncle tunes up a car, Leggett stands next to him, handing him tools and observing.
So earlier this year when he walked into the Work & Learn Center and saw a room full of bicycles, he knew he’d found a perfect job match.
The recently launched program, which is formally called the Trafigura Work & Learn Center, offers paid apprenticeships to struggling youth between the ages of 16 and 24. Participants take life-skills classes and work in a bike shop, making repairs and learning to deal with customers and use the cash register.
At the end of 12 weeks, apprentices may be provided with further job training or, if they are still in school, given help finding part-time jobs. The idea behind the program, borne out by research, is that teen job experiences of any sort lead to higher earnings and better job prospects later in life.
The Youth Empowerment Project started Work & Learn nearly two years ago as a way to better serve the at-risk youth on whom the agency focuses.
While many of the new charter schools that have opened since Hurricane Katrina focus on preparing students for college, a small but growing number of local efforts like Work & Learn aim to expose students to technical skills they can apply in jobs almost immediately.
In some ways, the programs hark back to vocational classes — like wood shop, auto mechanics and cosmetology — that were central to many high schools a few decades ago. But instead of preparing each student for a lifelong blue-collar career, the new programs feature a unique mix of work training, education and practical skills.
The initiatives are targeted at a particularly at-risk population: young black men.
Over time, program directors say, they hope to build up the city’s startlingly low black male employment rate, which in 2011 stood at 48 percent. By comparison, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national rate that year was 58 percent — 53 percent for black men and 65 percent for white men.
The new programs reflect today’s constantly shifting job markets. As in traditional job-training programs, staffers try to help applicants land entry-level, full-time positions. But no one tells today’s trainees to expect that the career for which they train will look the same tomorrow or will even exist in a few years. Instead, instructors teach apprentices not only how to land that first job but also how to explore future options.
The students learn that it’s often important to continue classes while they work, both as a way of moving up the career ladder and of adapting to industry changes and personal interests.
In addition to hands-on training in the bike shop, the Work & Learn program teaches apprentices so-called “soft skills,” like how to dress for interviews and complete job applications, and when to call your boss to report that you’re running late.
Leggett is a perfect fit for the Work & Learn program, due not only to his talents but also to his challenges. After Katrina, he missed about a year of class time, compounding his academic difficulties. At 16, he has yet to begin ninth grade.
Yet he is determined to become a mechanic.
The concern for teens like Leggett is that they could end up fixing cars informally for friends instead of working as certified mechanics, said Petrice Sams-Abiodun, who leads the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy at Loyola University.
“We have so many shade-tree mechanics, brothers who can fix anything but can’t get a job,” she said. “It’s because these guys have a mechanical mind but they can’t read well enough to pass tests. So they can’t get certified.”
Often, the key to landing that job is who you know, Sams-Abiodun said. “Your social network matters. It helps you get a job — someone can call and vouch for you,” she said. “Many young black men, the reason they don’t have jobs is that they don’t have that network.”
Work & Learn will not only expand Leggett’s job skills and experience — it will broaden his network.
The tall instructor from Delgado Community College bent his knees a little to draw an electrical diagram on the blackboard. Then he stood back. “This is about current flow. Everything is about current flow,” he said, reminding his class that each squiggly line was a resistor.
The class at the Warren Easton Charter High School consisted of about two dozen young African-American men, who nodded to show they understood.
Last year, they were part of the first Warren Easton class to participate in a new state “dual-enrollment” program called Jump Start, which allows juniors and seniors to take technical classes at the college level and earn career certifications while still in high school. Participants take classes at Delgado and other colleges in an effort, like Work & Learn, to give students exposure to a range of technical skills.
As the lesson continued, Lindsey Moore Jr., a junior, raised his hand. “Will the circuit blow if one node is uneven?” he asked.
When Moore graduates next spring, he will receive both a high-school diploma and an electrician’s certificate, which will allow him to be hired immediately as an electrical lineman in an industrial plant, and enable him to afford additional studies in electronics or pursue a degree in a different field.
Moore and his classmates are high-achieving youths attending a well-regarded New Orleans school. According to school counselor Patrice Strickland, roughly 75 percent of Warren Easton’s students enroll in college.
Yet research shows that they, too, are at risk of not finding stable employment. Even with a high school diploma, their prospects of finding work are about the same as those of a white high school dropout.
A recent White House report noted that 21 percent of black men earn a college degree by their late 20s, compared with 40 percent of white men. In Louisiana, only 28 percent of high school students go on to complete at least an associate’s degree. The rate is even lower in New Orleans.
“Only 15 percent of black men have post-secondary education in the city,” said Sams-Abiodun, who wrote an analysis of the topic. “That’s been consistent since 1980.”
Recognizing that not all of their students can afford college, Warren Easton administrators also focus on job readiness. “We push our students so that once they graduate, they have viable employment,” Strickland said.
So far, electrical classes have been the most popular vocational offerings, but Warren Easton students also are studying nursing, medical records, hospitality, fitness and emergency-medical response.
From dead-end job to career
As pumps hummed, David Brown Sr. put his hand on a big lever connected to a massive boiler and turbine engine. One pull and Brown can keep Tulane University’s electricity running during a hurricane or any other loss-of-power event.
Work at the Tulane power plant is a good fit for Brown, 21, who has memorized each component and recently learned how to take apart and reassemble the big pumps. He is apprenticing at Tulane through Earn and Learn, launched last year by the nonprofit Cowen Institute.
Earn and Learn targets youths who are out of work, out of school or working in dead-end jobs. Each apprentice works a few days a week at a Tulane job, takes community college classes and receives life-skills and career coaching.
About half of Earn and Learn apprentices lack a high school diploma. Brown graduated from high school with good grades, but he was stuck in a menial job stocking shelves at night. He lacked a career pathway.
His academic strengths were well-known to Earn and Learn program manager Matthew Feigenbaum, a former math teacher at Renew Accelerated High School, who remembers Brown as an A student in geometry and advanced algebra.
Feigenbaum says his organization routinely sees “young adults without a next step” — bright young people stuck in jobs in which they’re forced to live day-to-day with little thought of the future, much less a career.
Feigenbaum helped Brown set up a bank account and has worked with him to achieve other personal goals.
“The program, it does everything,” said Brown, who used his classroom time to work toward a boiler license.
Earn and Learn paid for passes for the streetcar that Brown took to work each day, and it footed the bill for his books at Delgado. It also ensured that he had all the services needed for his 1-year-old son, D.J., who is cared for by Brown’s mother while he and his girlfriend work.
This summer, armed with his expanded résumé, Brown was offered a full-time position with benefits at a shipyard in New Orleans East, just a short bus ride from home.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he said with a grin, noting that Earn and Learn will help him become certified on the machines he needs to operate in his new job.
Brown made a pledge to himself a year ago, after D.J. was born. “I kept saying, ‘I want my son to have a better life than I did,’ ” he said. Now, he feels that he can keep his promise.
“It’s no longer just words,” he said.
This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.