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Published in Print: January 23, 1991, as 'Jobs' Program Hailed For Prepping Students For Success at Work

'Jobs' Program Hailed For Prepping Students For Success at Work

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Ashland, Va--The day's lesson was time management, and Laura Perkinson, was sounding like a cross between a teach a guidance counselor, and a mother gently chiding her family.

"When your dad goes Christmas shopping at the last minute for your mama, what usually happens?" she asked her class of 12th graders at Patrick Henry High School here.

"He buys the wrong size or something, and she has to return it," answered one of "And that's what I call bad time management," Ms. Perkinson retorted.

Despite the holiday-shopping topic, the class under way last month at this rural Hanover County school was not home economics. It was a lesson on the expectations of a busy workplace, taught to participants in Jobs for America's Graduates. The program has been hailed by many, including President Bush, as perhaps the most promising answer to a pressing dilemma: how to meaningfully employ the one-half of America's high-school graduates who do not go on to college.

"K-12 just doesn't prepare anyone for the workplace," said Sue E. Berryman, director of the Institute on Education and the Economy at Teachers College, Columbia University. "There's no system that comes into play as kids move through high school and begin to think of directions they would like to go to become a skilled worker."

The issue has increasingly drawn the attention of top policymakers, who point out that the United States is one of the few Western nations without a formal system for the transition from school to work. (See Education Week, May 23, 1990)

Jobs for America's Graduates is trying to become that system. The 12-year-old program seeks to train students to find jobs that allow for advancement without a college degree, and its leaders hope to forge an alliance with private industry that will create a greater number of such jobs. Now operating in 19 states and territories, the program serves some 20,000 students in more than 350 high schools.

President Bush, speaking at a Washington luncheon last month honoring the governors of the states participating in the effort, said he would like to see it implemented nationwide.

"This organization has enjoyed lasting support from state officials, governors, and from the business community," Mr. Bush, a founding member of the JAG board of directors, said. "And it's all for one simple reason: It works."

By most accounts, the program lives up to the President's praise. More than 92 percent of the high-school seniors enrolled in the program in 1989 graduated or received a General Educational Development certificate, according to the organizers. Most of the participants were considered at risk for academic failure.

Eighty-two percent of the 1989 participants had found employment, enlisted in the military, or enrolled in further education within nine months of graduation.

A 1985 Northeastern University study of Jobs for Delaware Graduates, the first JAG program, showed that 89 percent of the participants were working full time or part time nine months after graduation, com pared with 69 percent of the young people in a sampling of high-school graduates who had not participated. For minority students, the difference was even clearer: 82 percent of the participants were employed, versus 49 percent of nonparticipants.

But some academics and business leaders are skeptical of the model's long-range effectiveness. Instead, they counsel more sweeping educational changes that they say will give employees the academic back ground to thrive in a modern workplace where increasingly more complex responsibilities have been pushed down to the lowest rung of the employee ladder.

Others say that the emphasis on higher education has become so in grained in the United States that the program should include instruction for at-risk students on little-known avenues into college.

"In the United States, the returns on postsecondary education are so enormous that we really need school-to-school transition programs," said Andrew Hahn, associate dean of the Heller Graduate School of Public Policy at Brandeis University, who monitors youth programs. "In the American context, for many people, [direct school- to-work transition] will create more of a barrier than a plus."

But, Mr. Hahn added, Jobs for America's Graduates has been re markably successful at adapting it self to the needs of its participants and is worthy of replication.

The program began in 1979, after business leaders in Delaware complained to then-Gov. Pierre S. du Pont 4th that public education and existing job-training programs were not preparing at-risk youths for employment, said Kenneth M. Smith, the president of JAG

With state and private funding, Delaware started its program. Since then, the initiative has expanded every school year, with Mississippi and Montana joining this year about 60 percent of the current $15- million budget is financed through the federal Job Training Partnership Act, with 25 percent coming from state legislatures and other public sources and 15 percent donated by the private sector, according to Mr. Smith.

"Job specialists" like Ms. Perkinson, who works for Jobs for Virginia Graduates at Patrick Henry High, are the backbone of the program.

Paid about the same as teachers, the specialists teach resume writing, workplace expectations, interviewing skills, and other lessons to prepare seniors to get and hold jobs. Guest speakers and field trips illuminate workforce possibilities that participants may never have heard of, Ms. Perkinson said.

Through such contact, employers explain what they need from an employee, and the prospective employees try to determine what careers they would like to pursue.

The program's specialists also counsel 9th, 10th, and 11th graders as part of a newly instituted dropout-prevention, or "opportunity awareness," component.

A school's participating students form a career association that organizes school events, takes part in community projects, and competes with other associations in the state in job-related exercises like public speaking and resume writing.

"It's a big help for students who aren't sure of what they want to do," said Jennifer Dyson, a student at Patrick Henry High who is president of its career association. Because of JAG, Ms. Dyson said, she now wants to go to college to become a paralegal. Without it, she said, "I probably would've been working at the grocery store."

The job specialists are also responsible for "job development," reaching out to the business community to let employers know what JAG students are being taught and when they will be available for work, as well as to get feedback from businHesses about the skills they need and the positions they will have open. "It's to [businesses'] benefit," Ms. Perkinson explained. "Our students are pre-screened. The employer knows what he's getting."

Once the first crop of graduates proves that the program's training has prepared them for the workforce, local employers begin to seek out JAG trainees, said Millicent Ford, manager of program development for the Virginia program and one of the state's first specialists.

That link is vital to job programs, said Garrison J. Moore, research and information director for the National Alliance of Business's office of workplace learning.

"The idea is not to take people up to the door, spiff them up, and say, 'Go for it,"' said Mr. Moore, who is designing a school-to-work program for the nab "Instead, you have employers involved in schools, working out the curriculum, and offering their work experience."

The job specialists help their students obtain jobs upon graduation, and follow up for nine months to help the participants get their first promo tions or raises. They are also responsi ble for any participants who may have dropped out of high school.

"That's the 'mother hen' syndrome," said J. Patricia Walden, a regional manager for the Virginia program.

Students apply for the elective, yearlong course. The criteria for se lection vary, but are generally based on socioeconomic and family back grounds, risk of dropping out, and career motivation, said Robert A. Bracey 3rd, principal of Patrick Henry High. Participants are gener ally students who have no clear idea of what lies beyond graduation, he said.

"Most of these kids here would have been lost in the ... system," he said. "But they've got [the job specialist] to lean on."

Being responsible for up to 45 students and graduates at once can be difficult for a JAG specialist, acknowledged Mr. Smith, the program's president. But the high ratio has kept costs down and made repli cation easier, he added.

The program's expenses consist largely of salaries for job specialists, and, at about $1,000 per student, are half that of most other JTPA programs, according to Mr. Smith.

Nevertheless, he said, the program has not expanded as fast as he would like. Some of the 19 states and territories currently involved may have only a handful of participating high schools.

At a press conference held before last month's luncheon, Gov. John R. McKernan Jr. of Maine, the organization's national chairman, summed up the situation.

"Frankly," he said, "it seems to me that Jobs for America's Graduates, despite being over 10 years old, is still one of America's best-kept secrets."

Gov. John D. Ashcroft of Missouri, another participating state, called the problem simply one of "competing priorities" for scarce funds.

Jobs for America's Graduates could soon face the somewhat embarrassing prospect of having its model implemented more extensively in a foreign country than in its own, Mr. Smith suggested. In 1983, training-agency officials in the British government began monitoring JAG's progress. Last year, they decided to implement it on a trial basis in 15 high schools in seven cities. (See related story on page 20.)

"If the government of Britain should elect to make this available throughout the country, within a year to 18 months they could do it," Mr. Smith said.

But in the United States, where public money is increasingly tight, private industry must be enlisted, and local, state, and federal governments jockey for jurisdiction, replication becomes far more problematic. "The sun, the moon, and the stars all have to be in the right order" if JAG is to meet its full potential, Mr. Smith said.

Some academics have said the model is not all that worthy of replication, primarily because it comes into play to late in the precollegiate years and is not part of a total process of student development.

Calling specific school-to-work programs "glue on's," Ms. Berryman of Teachers College argued: "What we need really is the cultural conception of what we want out of our schools. Absent that, what you've got is a little spit here, a little spit there."

Robert Lerman, chairman of the economics department at American University, said Jobs for America's Graduates might work for some students, but that, with the school-to- work situation as dire as it is, some thing far more integral has to be done."When we have a cohort in which 30 percent to 40 percent of young people are not getting into good work opportunities, you're not talking about being able to deal with that through second-chance, highly targeted programs, even if they do work," he said. "It's something that requires much more broad-based change."

But, for the students JAG has reached, the program has made a difference, participants say.

In a letter to Gov. Booth Gardner of Washington, Christy Richards, a program graduate, wrote about the slogan her class devised for a contest last year: "', if you can dream it, you can achieve it."'

"Since then," she wrote, "I've thought about that slogan, and I really believe in it. If the students of today can dream of good achievements for tomorrow, America would be a better place for everyone."

Vol. 10, Issue 18, Page 1, 20-21

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