Today’s Poll

Youth Centre Digs Deep Into Employability Training

Bill Metcalfe
By Bill Metcalfe
April 10th, 2012

Chris Catta says that before his experience in the Skills Link program, he would have never agreed to be interviewed by the media. “I would have been hiding in the corner,” he says.

“The program has totally boosted my confidence. I used to have bad avoidance behaviour where I could not talk to people. This program has helped me work on that and it has lifted me out of that slump. It has opened me up to realize that people aren’t judging everything I am saying.”

That’s not the kind of change that happens overnight. Participants in the Skills Link program at the Nelson Youth Centre spend 22 full-time weeks intensely immersed in workshops, volunteer work, and job placements. The mandate of the program is that all participants will be gainfully employed or enrolled back in school by the time they’ve finished.  Participants get paid minimum wage to be there, funded by Service Canada.

Going beyond band-aids

“The length of the program is good,” says Charlotte Philip, Lead Facilitator, “because it takes a while to peel back the layers. I think a lot of government services are band-aids.”

Philip says many youth can’t learn employability skills until some other basic issues are dealt with.  “Some people needed help with their housing, some needed a leg up with food. We provided bus passes for the first month until they started having an income– little bits of help, and identifying what the real problems are. A couple of people need glasses but don’t have them—that is going to hold you back.”

Right off the top, the participants earn certificates, including Serving it Right, Occupational First Aid, Food Safe. “It feels awesome now that I have those as part of my resume,” says Catta.

How to be an employee

Then they get rigorous training in how be an employee. “A lot of young people need to be taught how to be workers.” says Philip, “Things as simple as how to request time off if they have an appointment, what are the proper channels to do that kind of thing, to being on time, to being dressed appropriately for what your job is. And some of them need to learn that communication on the job is different from when you’re at home.”

There is a broad range of educational backgrounds represented in the program from people who haven’t finished high school to some with university degrees who still have trouble breaking into the “hidden job market”— word-of-mouth jobs that are never advertised.

Shy and overwhemed

“At the beginning,” says facilitator Elaine Chernoff,  “a lot of them are shy and overwhelmed, they are afraid to pick up the phone and make a call, or make a doctors appointment.”

“There are a lot of life-skills that I didn’t get when I was a kid,” says participant Leahsydney Pettit, “because I am autistic and my parents didn’t know how to teach me. The people here know about autism because there is more information now and they know how to explain things and tailor things to my patterns.”

Next step: volunteer work

After getting the certificates and attending some workshops, the next step is volunteer work. The Youth Centre has found placements in several non-profit organizations. Philip and Chernoff make sure  there is constant feedback between the employer, the participant, and the Youth Centre about the participant’s progress.  

“One of the components in the second phase is food sustainability,” says Chernoff, “so they have been building raised garden beds and those garden boxes will be delivered to recipients at the food cupboard.” Chernoff says the partnership with the Food Cupboard exemplifies one of the goals of the program: building relationships between the participants and community organizations.

Leahsydney is writing a resource manual for a local non-profit. “I want to get into journalism and fiction writing. Here I am working on a project that is giving me experience in interviewing and writing articles and it gives me good connections throughout the community,” she says.

Next phase: work experience

After the volunteer work , there are work experience placements. Again, there’s a three-way loop of specific feedback on how the participant is doing. Philip says employers often need help with giving effective feedback.  “They are nervous that it may not be taken well, or they just don’t want to deal with it and it just perpetuates the problem, so we are trying to bridge that.”

The program continues to pay minimum wage to the participants while they are in their work experience. They work three days a week and spend the other two back at the Youth Centre with Chernoff and Philip, honing their communication skills and workplace awareness, bringing their experience on the job and the employers’ feedback into the discussions.

Getting things done

Chris Catta grins when he talks about his work experience placement. “I am working with the Rick Hanson event, booking the bands for it, working on the media coverage for it. I get lots of good networking and communication skills, I have to contact people I have never heard of before. That makes me a little more confident on the phone and email. 

“This has shown me that this is the kind of work I enjoy doing,” he continues.  “I like to be out there getting things done and have people enjoy the things I am able to bring to them.”

There are also upcoming work placements at the Outer Clove, Positive Apparel, and Ripping Giraffe, with more to come. “We focus on what the employer really needs, and we try to provide that,” says Chernoff. 

Another round of the program will begin in June. Youth, non-profit organizations, and employers who want to take part should call the Youth Centre at 352-5656.

Always say yes

Charlotte Phillip says what keeps her going is the dramatic shift she sees in the participants over time, some of them moving from being “young 20-year-old guys, just toughies, and then watching them realize we are on their team and we are not just somebody else telling them what to do.” She says when that happens they start helping each other out and stepping up to help the group.

“I was talking with one the guys,” says Philip, “and he said, You know, I am just tired of all this complaining, I am not going to do it anymore. I want to get somewhere. I have a plan. Just tell me what I need to do to get it done.  And he did it after that day. If something needs to be done in the program here, he’ll do it.  That is the attitude that will keep you working, it’s a transferrable skill: always say yes. No job is too small or beneath you.”

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