L.A. Leaders Look to Save Job Training Program for Foster and Homeless Youth

Los Angeles foster youth at a job training held before COVID-19 social distancing requirements. Photo: Astor Morga

As coronavirus cases surge and the reopening of the economy gets rolled back, Los Angeles County leaders are searching for funds to protect a job training program aimed at helping vulnerable teens and young adults get crucial work experience. 

In a motion being discussed at next Tuesday’s meeting, the Board of Supervisors calls on the county’s Chief Executive Office to find $20.7 million in the county’s strangled budget to preserve funding for Youth@Work, a jobs program that provides paid work experience in county departments and soft skills training for young adults who need help breaking into the workforce.

“Youth@Work is a vital onramp to the ‘World of Work’ by connecting the most vulnerable youth to meaningful work experience,” states the motion by Supervisors Hilda Solis and Kathryn Barger. The program, which serves teens and young adults 14 to 24, prioritizes those coming from the foster care or juvenile justice systems, the LGBTQ community, and young people struggling with homelessness.  

County funding for the program is allocated each year as one-time spending. It was not included in the latest budget draft, which grapples with a $935.3 million gap. In hopes of ensuring Youth@Work can keep functioning at full capacity, the supervisors are looking for the funds in the supplemental budget, which will be presented to the Board in September after state and federal funding is clearer. 

The county can potentially accomplish two pressing goals with Youth@Work this year. Some participants would be trained to join the fight against COVID-19 by working as contact tracers, while others would provide support to Angelenos experiencing food insecurity and homelessness. 

Solis and Barger describe the work as impactful for the young workers as well, allowing them to “experience the value their generation has helping during this historic crisis.”

Young adults in California have been crushed by job losses related to the pandemic. More than half of the state’s new unemployment claims have come from people between the ages of 16 and 24, according to the Employment Development Department. Over five million Californians have applied for unemployment benefits since the pandemic shutdown began in March. 

Foster youth have been particularly hard hit. A national survey from the nonprofit FosterClub found that 65% of transition-aged foster youth have lost work or had their hours slashed amid the pandemic, with half reporting finances so tight that they couldn’t afford enough to eat. 

The backsliding comes as efforts to better support foster youth in identifying and starting down a career path have escalated in recent years in Los Angeles County. In 2013, there were only 81 identified foster youth participating in the county’s workforce program, but through increased outreach, hundreds are now included each year. 

April Barcus, an advocate for foster youth who grew up in the system, said programs like Youth@Work, which offer the prospect of a path to permanent employment, rarely develop into full-time jobs.

“The concept is great, but from what I have seen it tends to be a temporary job and doesn’t necessarily lead to any long-term employment opportunities,” said Barcus, who participated in a similar program last year through America’s Job Center of California, which runs the Youth@Work program. 

Barcus, who was furloughed from her theme park job at the beginning of the pandemic, sees the value in helping foster youth find work but said the need far outstrips the opportunities, especially in county government positions with the potential to develop into a career. 

But she said foster youth would benefit more if the program could match them with a position aligned with their career goals, so they can leverage the opportunity as a steppingstone toward a more stable future. Her first placement through the jobs program, for example, was a good post at the District Attorney’s Office, a great complement to her studies double-majoring in political science and paralegal studies at College of the Canyons. But after taking sick leave, she was transferred to retail positions at Old Navy and then Goodwill. 

“Skill development is key in most career choices,” she said, “and you really can only get that by hands-on experience.” 

Throughout the early months of the pandemic, the Youth@Work program has continued to offer the soft skills training component of its program virtually. Administrators are working to develop a more robust online platform so that participants who can’t go to a physical workspace can still participate, and the motion calls on the workforce department to identify opportunities for remote work in county departments. 

In a statement presenting her budget recommendation last week, the county’s chief executive officer, Sachi Hamai, said she hopes additional funds will come in from the state and federal governments to help offset the across-the-board cuts in the county’s pandemic-era budget. 

The supervisors will vote on this motion next Tuesday during their weekly meeting. If it passes, a coalition of county departments will have 30 days to work up a plan to keep the program running.

Sara Tiano can be reached at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org. 

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