March 19, 2018

Boys & Girls Clubs sharpen focus on college, career readiness

HBJ Photo | John Stearns
HBJ Photo | John Stearns
Samuel Gray Jr., president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford (left), Julie Dubé, director of program services for the Hartford clubs, and James Clark, president and CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs of America, based in Atlanta, are pictured in the college and career center at the Asylum Hill Boys & Girls Club in Hartford.
Photo | HBJ File
Diane Cantello is the vice president of corporate sustainability at The Hartford.
Lisa Boyle, Partner, Robinson + Cole

Employers looking for new workers might very well find them coming out of a local Boys & Girls Club in Hartford, or any of the other 4,367 clubs in the U.S.

Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) has long emphasized preparing teens for life after high school as one of its pillars, but the organization is sharpening its focus on college and career readiness, thanks in part to a $3 million grant from The Hartford last year to develop college and career centers at 30 clubs across the country, including Hartford.

"I believe this will happen: We'll be the preeminent source in the country, in the next five, seven years, when it comes to this whole mechanism around workforce readiness for youth," Atlanta-based BGCA President and CEO James Clark said during an interview on a recent visit to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford.

"Companies are coming to us saying, we want to partner with you because you have 4 million youth and 600,000 teenagers," Clark said. "That is a ready-made, if you will, workforce."

The college and career centers can amplify the BGCA's focus on helping teens prepare either to enter the workforce immediately, or help prepare them for trade/technical schools, college or the armed forces. The centers add attention and resources, including dedicated center staff, to helping BGCA further pave college and career pathways, with a strong focus on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) to correlate with job trends of the future.

"We recognized that approaching the end of high school can be daunting for young people," The Hartford's Diane Cantello, vice president of corporate sustainability, which includes philanthropy, said in explaining the company's grant to help teens explore their options, build their skills, demystify that next stage in life and move forward "with a bounce in their step."

It's about "setting young people up to be as successful as they can be post high school," she said of the impetus behind the donation for 10 centers last year, 10 this year and 10 next year.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford college and career center, which opened in June, includes a part-time college and career coordinator whose job includes facilitating financial literacy, career exploration and job readiness programs, facilitating internships and job shadowing, providing tips, advice and resources, and organizing workshops and field trips to colleges or workplaces, said Julie Dubé, director of program services for the Hartford clubs.

"One of my goals for the college and career center is for the Boys & Girls Club of Hartford to become a hub for teens to get the skills they need to get a job," Dubé said.

The clubs also wants to be viewed by employers as a talent source.

Samuel Gray Jr., president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Hartford, said BGCA's suite of programs to develop teens can help the Hartford region, where many companies are desperate for talent and some are relocating to find it.

"I think we're a valuable resource that could be a solution with the corporate community as we develop young people to give them the soft skills that they need to be able to be good candidates," Gray said.

BGCA research shows soft skills — creative problem-solving, customer service, how to collaborate, interact with peers and develop solutions — are important to employers, Clark said.

"Everything they do here will build into those soft skills so that they are prepared for those jobs and then the hard skills — résumé writing, applications — of course, that will be a byproduct of what comes out of this," he said.

Internships and jobs

Hartford law firm Robinson + Cole has enjoyed success employing two or three Boys & Girls Clubs interns each summer for about the last decade, said Lisa Boyle, a partner there. Interns work in areas that include the records department and information systems and learn a law firm is more than lawyers, she said. Interns get exposed to marketing, IT and more, talk with staff about their jobs and the training necessary for them.

"It's been really nice for them and for us," Boyle said.

It can be hard for teens to get summer jobs, particularly for those in Hartford who may have few connections outside their immediate neighborhood, she said. Robinson + Cole gives teens a place to spend time in summer, earn money, make connections and experience a professional business environment.

"Law firms can be stuffy places, but honestly … we've never had any bad experience, the kids are always awesome," Boyle said. "The people in the firm love them."

One club member who interned for two summers became a full-time employee in 2011. Today, Elizabeth Figueroa is a well-loved support specialist in the firm's information technology department, Boyle said.

The clubs can be a benefit for employers, helping prepare teens for work, Boyle said, adding, "I haven't, in my career, seen anything like what they do there."

The Hartford's Cantello said Boys & Girls Clubs can be among many pipelines for employers.

Looking forward, "there cannot be an overabundance of such resources," she said.

Clothing retailer Old Navy, among many companies partnering with BGCA, has set a goal of 5 percent of its employees coming from the clubs, Clark said.

BGCA is also talking with the U.S. Department of Commerce, which will need 500,000 census takers in 1˝ years, he said.

"We're here," Clark said, waving his hand. "That's $19.50 an hour."

BGCA is also working with the Department of Labor to explore pre-apprenticeship programs for teens.

A job’s promise

BGCA programs also aren't as well-known as they should be, but Connecticut, for example, has data proving club members miss less school and have better grades, which translates to high school graduation and momentum for the future, Clark said.

"So this is a proven research-based recipe and now we're saying, let's turn up the volume across the country," he said.

"Every kid that comes to a Boys & Girls Club someday should be made a promise," Clark said of either getting a college education and/or a job, and that they're prepared.

"It's a promise that if you are a Boys & Girls Clubs member, you will be a productive member in society and earn a family supporting wage that will restore the American Dream and the American promise in this country and rebuild the middle class," Clark said.

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