By Ben Chase
Ben Chase is a guest blogger and educator from Noble High School.
Without any clear vision for what the next year may hold, it’s time to look beyond the classroom walls and computer screens for innovative solutions to educating during the Covid-19 pandemic, especially for our most vulnerable students. Intentionally facilitated employment offers promise in this regard. Of course, coronavirus has made it exceedingly difficult to secure employment,[i] so youth are missing not only their school-based education but also the informal education that happens at work. Under the right working conditions, young people can learn to love work, grow their sense of self, and increase their self-efficacy.[ii] Therefore, we have the opportunity (and maybe duty) to create jobs that, when managed and facilitated appropriately, could offer our most vulnerable students the essential education absent from their current Covid-19 experience. This opportunity is most promising in rural areas where it’s relatively easy to connect youth with meaningful outdoor work.
Educators know that what’s missing most from our distance learning curriculums is the stuff that really matters: contagious curiosity, development of self, and genuine human connection.[iii] The right job, though, connects us with these things in a way that can shape who we are.[iv] Mathew Crawford’s bestseller Shop Class as Soulcraft puts it another way: “The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy.”[v] While in The Mind at Work, Mike Rose carefully articulates how hair stylists are a “confidant, [and] informal counselor” for their clients.[vi] Both “confidant” and “counselor” are closer to personality traits than to a profession. More esoteric is Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, bridging an often under-appreciated trade with discussions of art, philosophy, and education. In each of these books, work is shown to be a learning or a becoming experience; being an effective English teacher requires me to know books, but also develop my character, personality, and affect in a way that allows me to connect with every type of teenager.
Studies have shown that summer youth employment programs can be good for teenagers.[vii] But the youths’ experience of that employment still hasn’t been given enough critical thought,[viii] and solutions for employing youth in rural areas—in summer or throughout the year—haven’t been widely implemented. While employing youth through existing companies may be the only way to employ the incredible demand in metropolitan areas[ix]—there is no way a single company can keep hundreds or thousands of teenagers busy at work—the reverse may be true in rural areas. In such places, there are significant barriers to connecting youth to jobs. Job openings are limited and it’s often impossible to get to a job without a car. Therefore, rural schools, communities, and partners must consider building programs that provide employment and eliminate transportation barriers in order to serve their youth who would benefit most from the additional support.
Fortunately, there are already organizations that can serve as a guide for future program development. They serve as models both for the types of work that can be done and how it can be intentionally facilitated. The Appalachian Mountain Club/NH-Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG) partnership serves at-risk youth through an established connection with a local school’s JAG counselor. Additionally, the work that this trail crew does is engaging in that it offers a chance for youth to own their projects, learn new skills, and build trails for the local community. The Green Team, out of Lawrence, Massachusetts, also connects youth with engaging outdoor work within the community and has a major emphasis on training leaders and youth to build a positive workplace culture. The Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC), of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, offers one of the most holistic approaches to this mission. While doing trail and land management work with youth, leaders think of themselves as educators, implementing a curriculum, fostering community, and delivering results. In-house surveys show their program to increase self-efficacy, at least in the short term.[x]
Based on the examples set by these programs, I suggest six criteria to serve as a starting point for future program development and implementation:
- The program must connect with at-risk youth and eliminate the transportation barriers that would prevent them from showing up.
- Youth should be paid more than minimum wage for their work. Even an incremental pay increase separates this program from the average high-school job; it signals that commitment is required and important work with good people is going to be done.
- The program must have supervisors that care about and love their employees as individuals.
- The program must identify and practice its mission as one of education,[xi] not simply getting work done. However, this education is happening in the context of work, so the core of the program needs to be closer to a place of an employment than to a traditional classroom.
- The work itself should be engaging and offer the opportunity for autonomy, mastery, and purpose.[xii]
- The work should engage youth within the community that they live.
By starting from these tenants and further researching what other programs are already doing well, we can create meaningful learning experiences for our students in a space totally separate from the classroom. Because the best place to do this work is the outdoors, where Covid-19 doesn’t spread as easily and social distancing is possible, these programs are a viable option in our current educational predicament. In fact, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps has already seen this need and expanded their programs with intense Covid-19 precautions. Though there is urgency in figuring out how to serve our most vulnerable students, it is critical that we create new programs thoughtfully, carefully, and with safety in mind. If done well, we may find that intentionally facilitated employment can be a useful tool in offering meaningful education to our most vulnerable students, even after this pandemic and its repercussions are no longer on the front of our minds.
Crawford, M. (2009). Shop Class as Soulcraft. Penguin.
Dweck, C. S. (2006). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York: Random House.
Gini, Al. (1998). Work, Identity and Self: How We Are Formed by the Work We Do. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(7), 707.
Herrygers, K. S., & Wieland, S. M. B. (2017). Work socialization through part-time work: Cultivating self-efficacy and engagement through care. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 45(5), 557–575. https://doi.org/10.1080/00909882.2017.1382712
Kochhar, R. (2020). Unemployment rose higher in three months of COVID-19 than it did in two years of the Great Recession. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/06/11/unemployment-rose-higher-in-three-months-of-covid-19-than-it-did-in-two-years-of-the-great-recession/
Leos-Urbel, Jacob. (2014). What Is a Summer Job Worth? The Impact of Summer Youth Employment on Academic Outcomes. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 33(4), 891. https://doi.org/10.1002/pam.21780
Modestino, A. S., & Paulsen, R. J. (2019). Reducing inequality summer by summer: Lessons from an evaluation of the Boston Summer Youth Employment Program. Evaluation and Program Planning, 72, 40–53. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.evalprogplan.2018.09.006
Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York, NY: Riverhead Books.
Rose, M. (2004). The Mind at Work. Penguin.
Wiseman, L., & McKeown, G. (2010). Multipliers: How the best leaders make everyone smarter. New York: Harper Business.
Work identity development in young adults with mental health problems. (2019). Scandinavian Journal of Occupational Therapy. https://doi.org/10.1080/11038128.2019.1609084
[i] Kochhar. Ages 16-24 have the highest rate of unemployment. What is the rate of youth unemployment in rural areas?
[ii] Herrygers, K. S., & Wieland, S. M. B. (2017). “Our analysis demonstrates that organizational culture and interpersonal relationships were especially crucial for enabling the youth to develop a positive experience of work as well as increased” (558); “The culture of care constructed in YEP was vital to enabling their transformations. This study points to the power of work to transform lives – not just careers. How we relate and collaborate at work significantly shapes our meanings of work and self-efficacy (573).
[iii] Strong communities and interpersonal connections buffer the effects of trauma. See The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog.
[iv] Gini, Al. (1998) “The lessons we learn at work help formulate who we become and what we value as individuals and a species. To use Gregory Baum’s handsome phrase: ‘Labor is the axis of human self-making’” (708); “It is in work that we become persons. Work is that which forms us, gives us a focus, gives us a vehicle for personal expression and offers us a means for personal definition” (708) Work identity development in young adults with mental health problems (2019). “Productive occupations constitute a constructive area for personal development and identity shaping” (2).
[v] Crawford, M. (2009). Shop Class as Soulcraft. Penguin. (pp. 15).
[vi] Rose, M. (2004). The Mind at Work. Penguin. (pp. 45)
[vii] Leos-Urbel, Jacob. (2014). “These estimated increases in attendance and in attempting and passing optional examinations may appear small, but they are not trivial. Viewed within the context of school attendance policy, an increase of four to five days” (907). Modestino, A. S., & Paulsen, R. J. (2019). “Based on the survey data we collected, it appears that the Boston SYEP positively impacts youth in many of the ways it was designed to do. Relative to the control group, participants in the program appear to gain additional job readiness skills, especially in terms of preparing resumes and cover letters and practicing for interviews. Among those indicating plans to pursue higher education, participants are more likely to raise their sights toward enrolling in a four-year college. Finally, all participants report greatly improved their social skills and attitudes towards their communities” (49)
[viii] Katelyn Sandor Herrygers & Stacey M. B. Wieland (2017), Jacob Leos-Urbel. (2014). “Despite confidence that part-time job quality influences young people’s attitudes toward work, scholars do not yet fully understand the qualities of work experiences that cultivate positive attitudes toward work. Some studies emphasize the importance of task quality by considering the extent to which a part-time job enables a young person to use and develop significant skills” (558).
[ix] Ibid. “Each summer, the program employs about 10,000 youth aged14 to 24 with roughly 900 local employers” (41)
[x] Interview with Gretchen Van De Carr, Chief Executive Officer of RMYC, on June 22, 2020.
[xi] Herrygers, K. S., & Wieland, S. M. B. (2017) “Supervisors that were willing to mentor and care for the young workers played a crucial role in helping the youth come to view work as more than just a paycheck and come to see themselves as having something meaningful to contribute” (566); Dweck (2006); Wiseman & McKeown (2010)
[xii] Pink (2009).