College & Workforce Readiness

Obama Foundation Launches Workforce-Training Program for Chicago Youth

By Catherine Gewertz — March 23, 2018 4 min read
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Former President Barack Obama’s foundation announced Thursday that it has begun a new program that provides workforce training and paid internships to high school students on the South Side of Chicago.

The Obama Youth Jobs Corps was formed in partnership with Urban Alliance, a national youth-development organization that has years of experience providing job training and internships to high school students.

The new jobs corps aims to build economic self-sufficiency for young people in one of the city’s most economically distressed neighborhoods by offering job training to high school sophomores and juniors, and paid internships to seniors.

Without a prior announcement, the program began this spring with classroom teaching for about 160 sophomores and juniors at three high schools: Hyde Park Academy High School, Kenwood Academy High School, and Little Black Pearl Art & Design Academy. Two dozen seniors from those schools are working in paid internships.

Preparing for the World of Work

The curriculum, taught three hours a week to 11th grade students by Urban Alliance staff, is being piloted this year, and will be fully rolled out next year. It covers “soft skills” students need to get jobs—such as writing a resume and interviewing—and to do well on the job, such as managing time, conducting themselves professionally, and dressing appropriately. It teaches students how to set up a bank account, work out a budget and understand their paychecks. Students spend part of the course setting goals and planning for life after high school.

Sophomores at the three Chicago schools are attending five workshops this spring that are designed to introduce them to workplace skills, Urban Alliance officials said. The organization is working with the Obama Foundation to infuse civic engagement components into the curriculum as well, such as organizing, storytelling, and leadership skills.

The plan is to add more schools to the roster in 2018-19. Sophomores and juniors will get training in school, and seniors will get 10-month, paid internships that start at $12 per hour, with two possible merit-based increases during the year. The project’s goal, five years from now, is to provide training each year for nearly 200 10th and 11th grade students, and paid internships for 200 12th graders.

David Simas, the CEO of the Obama Foundation, said that the new project lines up nicely with the philanthropy’s mission: giving young people the tools they need to make change.

“Access to opportunities is the key to success for young people living on Chicago’s South Side,” he said in a statement. "... [t]he Obama Youth Jobs Corps is one initiative that will help reduce barriers and open up more opportunities for young people in Chicago, and we’re excited to get started.”

Eshauna Smith, the CEO of Urban Alliance, said the jobs corps will “help underserved youth expand their idea of what is possible for their future and set them on a path to economic stability.”

Two Major Corporate Partners

Hyatt and Bank of America have committed to roles as “signature partners” in the Obama Youth Jobs Corps. Bank of America already offers five student internships through Urban Alliance, and will boost that by another 10 each year starting this fall, Urban Alliance officials said. Its foundation will also donate $500,000 over two years to support the program.

The Chicago-based hotel chain will double the number of internships it offers through the new program, from four to eight, and its foundation will make annual donations to Urban Alliance through the 2022-2023 school year to support the project. Hyatt officials would not specify the amount of the planned donations.

Research on Urban Alliance’s work has shown that completing its internships can boost students’ chances of going to college. But the organization said that it wants to connect with low-income students in Chicago earlier in high school, to ward off disengagement and dropping out. The jobs corps is one way to do that.

The partnership with Urban Alliance isn’t the first project of Barack and Michelle Obama’s foundation to focus on young people. It has also hosted a series of “training days” in Chicago, Boston and Tempe, Ariz., to teach students how to “put civics into action” in their neighborhoods. The Obama Foundation has also become the base for one of Obama’s signature initiatives, My Brother’s Keeper, which is designed to better support young men of color.

The foundation is building a presidential library that will open in 2021 and serve as a hub for civic engagement. Some of the students from the new Obama Youth Jobs Corps will do there internships there.

Urban Alliance Program Manager Deldric Henderson leads the first workforce training session with juniors at Kenwood Academy High School in Chicago earlier this year. --Photo courtesy of Urban Alliance

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.