Now Hiring: How a California Program Guides Foster Youth into the Workforce

iFoster, a California-based program that helps foster youth find jobs, has shown promising early results. Photo by Astor Morgan

Velvet Trivino dreams of becoming a skin care specialist one day, to help others look pretty, to make them feel their best.

But before she can care for someone else, she first had to look deep inside herself. With help from a nationally recognized group that connects foster youth to jobs, Trivino has learned how to face her own imperfections that could prevent her from reaching her dreams.

“What I’ve learned about are my flaws, that I need to be more sociable,” said Trivino, 21, a former foster youth who lives in Montebello, California. “I’m quite reserved.”

Trivino said she learned about iFoster through Youth Moving On, a Pasadena, California-based organization that helps former foster and probation youth find affordable housing and support services. She signed up to learn how to improve her customer service skills so she could land a job at Starbucks, which helps employees pay for college.

The lesson she learned surfaced on a Saturday morning inside a classroom at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, a sprawling campus on the outskirts of downtown that is geared toward helping students get a leg up into new careers.

There, she and more than two dozen of her peers took part in a job training workshop organized by a national nonprofit called iFoster, part of an effort to help foster youth build stability through employment.

The need around the country is significant: Nearly 23,000 youth age out of foster care each year, and recent research suggests that up to half of them will be unemployed.

The iFoster jobs programs has shown promising early results: 400 youth placed in jobs, with most advancing to promotion within months. iFoster is in line for a philanthropic award that could help them expand the program’s reach. Meanwhile, a tax credit aimed at bringing more foster youth into the workplace could grow the demand for well-trained candidates.

Trainer Casswell Goodman uses humor to engage Trivino (far left) and other foster youth at a recent iFoster class. Photo by Astor Morgan

Getting Youth Ready

The 8-year-old, Truckee, Calif.-based organization started with a novel strategy to help foster parents, social workers, youth — the whole country’s foster care community — tap into reduced rates on all types of consumer goods. But it is iFoster’s jobs program, of which Trivino is a part, that has garnered national attention since it launched about three years ago.

“We’re the conduit between social welfare and the outside world,” said Serita Cox, co-founder and CEO of iFoster. “They’re earning the jobs. We’re not getting them the jobs. All we’re doing is removing the barriers, like any parent would do.”

iFoster’s program is targeted for youth ages 15 to 24 and involves a screening and interview process. Once in the program, participants tap into a network of major corporations including Starbucks, Raley’s, Nestle and FedEx, which are all looking for workers.

While both the economy and job market remain robust, foster youth who age out will struggle to find employment, a result of the lack of “soft skills” needed to compete for those positions, Cox said. iFoster’s workshops include lessons on résumé preparation, conflict resolution, how to dress for interviews and body language skills.

“We feel most of the opportunities for the youth we serve is in customer service,” said iFoster trainer Casswell Goodman, who also said that many of the youth don’t think customer service jobs are admirable. Part of the training includes changing that mindset. Many celebrities, he tells them, started out bagging groceries and working at McDonald’s.

But he said there’s also a level of understanding that foster youth have that others don’t.

“One of the things they want to know is about money, how to invest and how they can spend,” Goodman said. “They ask whether they should start 401(k)s. I’ve been asked about stocks and bonds two weeks in a row. It tells me that they are paying bills. These guys are in survival mode and it doesn’t help that housing costs are what they are in Los Angeles.”

Early Success in the Workplace

More than 400 youth have come through the program and earned employment. Their six-month retention rate is double the industry average, according to Cox, and the average time to promotion among those youths is just over three months. Over the past three years, grocery store chain Raley’s has hired more than 50 foster youth from the iFoster program, according to Raley’s spokesperson Chelsea Minor.

“It’s a win-win for the youth and business,” Minor said, in an email to The Imprint. “Providing employment opportunities to these young people is enhancing our workforce with dedicated, hard-working employees who in turn, inspire their fellow team members.”

Interest in the program has grown outside the state. iFoster recently began its first trainings in New York City, where 100 youth are expected to go through the program in the first year, Cox said. iFoster is also one of 20 finalists in the Communities Thrive Challenge, a philanthropic initiative that will award $1 million each to about 10 programs for general support and growth.

The potential expansion of the program dovetails with an effort on Capitol Hill aimed at incentivizing more companies to hire current and former foster youths. The Improved Employment Outcomes for Foster Youth Act would for the first time include foster youth as an eligible category under the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC), which incentivizes the hiring of certain groups who struggle with barriers to employment.

Under the new bill, an employer could claim the credit for up to $2,400 for hiring any youth or young adult who was in foster care on their 16th birthday. The credit can be claimed for a hire between the ages of 18 and 27.

Proponents of the bill are optimistic that the foster youth credit could be included in attempts to update WOTC, which is due for reauthorization this year.

Growing into New Opportunities

Arius Davis, 19, is still under the care of Los Angeles County’s foster care system. She’s a student at Cal State Long Beach and has a job as a daycare assistant. Davis wants to someday work in fashion and the entertainment field, and she knows she needs to sharpen her skills.

“I feel like, as it is, foster kids already have a disadvantage,” she said at a recent iFoster training session. “I want to learn about resources. I know I have a lot of strengths, but I feel like I can grow.”

She said it was important to stay positive, to use her own strengths and to keep learning. Davis already has learned a valuable lesson: “Evolving is your main asset.”

Trivino now works at a warehouse and attends classes at a local community college, but said she’s noticed successful people tend to be “a jack of all trades.”

“I personally wanted to do [the iFoster workshop] because I notice if you don’t have skills a lot of people are not interested in hiring you,” Trivino said.

If you are interested in reading more about federal child welfare and juvenile justice policy, read our annual special issue “Kids on the Hill: A Special Issue on Child Welfare Policy” by clicking here!

Your support allows The Imprint to provide independent, nonpartisan daily news covering the issues faced by vulnerable children and families.

Subscribe or Donate

The Chronicle of Social Change is now The Imprint, led by award-winning investigative reporter Karen de Sá. Read more here.

New name, same game. Thrilled to be part of this next chapter with @TheImprintNews! Follow to keep up with the latest child welfare and family justice news.