For 30 years Evanston’s Youth Job Center has been a place for young people to find a job – and much more. Since its founding in 1983 in a small storefront on Grove Street, YJC has been an agency that helps teens and young adults both find employment and develop skills and behaviors that build success in the workplace. The sign in front of its current 1114 Church St. address aptly reads: “Getting a Job, Launching a Future.”
“Nationwide recession, high unemployment, and greater attention on workforce development has made the YJC even more relevant,” said Sacella Smith, the agency’s executive director. “After 30 years of operation, we are now seeing second- and sometimes even third-generation clients. We’re a known and valued entity in the community now.” The YJC serves about 1,400 youth clients a year and made 713 job placements in 2012, over half of them placements for permanent jobs. A big selling point of the agency with clients, employer partners and funders is that YJC has very elastic boundaries. “We offer services to anyone in our target age group who can access our center and services,” explained Development Director Kim Hoopingarner.
The YJC’s mission is about success in the workplace, job-readiness, job-placement, employment support and collaborations. “Before we work with a client,” explained Ms. Smith, “they have to make an appointment. We are about professionalism, so that’s how we begin.”
After the initial interview with an employment counselor, clients begin a lengthy intake process and training that include 12 consecutive days of job-seeking sessions. Technology, interviewing skills, resume development and talent and interest assessments are part of the journey aimed at developing clients who can be matched successfully to available jobs – and optimally, a career path.
The Youth Job Center was founded by long-time Evanston resident and parent of five children Ann Jennett. Before she took a leap of faith and opened the center, Ms. Jennett says, she had left an unsatisfying job at Northwestern and spent a number of years as “the job lady” at ETHS’s career center.
“I saw that a lot of graduates weren’t going on to college, and they didn’t have plans or good networks in place for finding jobs,” she said. Many of the young people she helped were low-income minority students who lacked the skill sets and resources to become viable job candidates without some support. The center opened with a Community Development Block Grant, received 501c3 status as a not-for-profit, and began leveling the playing field for disadvantaged youth. “Three years after opening its doors, the center was acknowledged by the United Way as one of the most important and relevant agencies in town,” said Ms. Jennett. Before she stepped down as executive director in 2001, she and her expanded staff launched a YJC satellite office at ETHS – the Outpost – to provide students with job placement services on site.
The Outpost at ETHS has the distinction of being the only job-placement agency inside the doors of a high school in the Chicago area, and the in-school location has proven to be an effective venue. One of the YJC’s many success stories that began at the Outpost is that of client Stephene Burks, who first came to the Outpost five years ago when she was 15 years old. Her first job placement was as a summer tutor assistant for younger children at Martin Luther King Lab School; later, with her two summers of tutoring experiences, Stephene took advantage of the full range of services the YJC offers clients.
“I learned how to use Excel, how to write a good resume and a cover letter, and how to get references for a job application,” Stephene said. “The workshops lasted for several months but really started my job career.” Later, certified as a nurse assistant and looking for employment, she also benefited from the mock interviews, job fairs, the free wardrobe upgrades, transportation vouchers, and the regular calls of encouragement from her job counselor at the Center.
“I did a one-year, two-week internship at Rimland Services and then was hired by Misericordia, where I’ll be having my one-year anniversary on April 9,” Stephene said with pride. “I’m still working with the center because they give help with things like tax forms and now have recommended me for their WILL program.” The WILL program is a special initiative that assists young working women with career advancement, access to post-secondary training and education, affordable childcare, financial literacy education, peer coaching and even the opportunity for some matched savings.
Through its Core Placement Services, the YJC also reaches out to clients who have finished high school and are not immediately headed for post-secondary education. Patrick Moore, who is 25 and will qualify as a client until his next birthday (YJC serves clients 14-25), participated in the center’s full offerings of job-readiness services before being referred to potential employers.
“I went to job fairs, did mock interviews, got help with my resume, and even was given a wardrobe for interviewing,” he said. “ I got hired as a utility worker by Northwestern University and do food services. I work full time and like it there a lot. I’ve been there six and a half months, but they still call me from the Job Center, check up on me, and make sure that between paychecks I’ve got enough money for transportation. The Job Center’s been a big help to me.”
Partnerships and collaboration are part of the YJC’s sustainability plan. “If we determine that some clients are not employable, perhaps because their literacy level is very low, we will make referrals to literacy agencies or one of our community colleges,” said Ms. Smith. Job fairs are a key tool for jobseekers, and in 2012 over 50 employers had a presence at job fairs that approximately 800 jobseekers attended. During 2012 more than 200 new employer and internship sites were created, and some of those same employers made up the corporate contributions that brought in nearly a third of the YJC’s annual budget last year.
Amy Mosser, an Evanston resident and a YJC Board member since 2004, identified community partnerships and relationships as a reason for the YJC’s significant growth.
“Evanston’s Moran Center for Youth Advocacy provides legal assistance and social services to our clients, and Connection for the Homeless helps young clients dealing with homelessness,” said Ms. Mosser. Some of the many other community partnerships that further the center’s mission are the Junior League, the Evanston YWCA (focusing on domestic and financial security), Howard Street Area Center, Oakton Community College, Districts #65 and #202 School Districts and Night Ministry.
Ms. Mosser’s lengthy tenure as a board member has given her a good perspective about the YJC’s expansion. “Today the center has staff who focus mostly on maintaining relationships with employers, and this has strengthened us,” said Ms. Mosser. As the Job Center continues to attract larger numbers of clients, so has it increased the number of employers who provide jobs and offer training to young people. Lowes, UPS, Lincoln Park Zoo, McGaw YMCA, PLS Financial, Mather Lifeways, North Shore Community Bank, the Gap, and St. Francis Hospital are some of the partnering employers. Employer partners not only provide jobs for young people; often they donate valuable volunteer hours also.
“Last year YJC employer partners contributed more than 450 hours to the center,” said Executive Director Sacella Smith. “They have conducted mock interviews, provided job shadowing opportunities at their locations, conducted resume and interview workshops and served as mentors. “
The center is pleased, it says, to be providing these employers with work-ready clients who want jobs and ultimately careers. According to Janice Lindquist, director of Human Resources at St. Francis Hospital, “altruism and self-interest” characterize the good partnership between the hospital and the YJC.
“We have placed a number of the Center’s clients for eight-week internships,” Ms. Lindquist said, “and these young people get good experience – and sometimes subsequently a chance to be hired. The hospital gets the benefit of free labor as well as workers coming with some measure of job-readiness.”
On April 13, the YJC will celebrate its 30th anniversary with a grand celebration in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. People interested in attending, donating to the Center or becoming a Center volunteer should contact Kim Hoopingarner at KHoopingarner@youthjobcenter.org or call 847-864-5627.