For decades, Robert Sainz worked with thousands of impoverished youth throughout Los Angeles County, consistently bothered by a common occurrence: Community-based programs would offer young people job training but not housing, or offer housing but no opportunities for employment or health care. There was little coordination across service sectors, and little understanding of how all the challenges of struggling youth were interconnected and needed to be tackled together.
Latino and Black youth faced the most precarious circumstances, said Sainz, a former community development manager for Los Angeles, now executive director of the nonprofit New Ways to Work.
“When you have uneven, high concentrations of disconnected young adults,” he said, “that’s when you need systemic change.”
With that vision, in 2012, Sainz helped launch the City of Los Angeles’ network of YouthSource Centers in some of its most struggling neighborhoods. The centers relied on what was then a novel funding stream — mixing federal funds for job training with money designed for other essential needs. Now, 17 local workforce development boards across California rely on versions of that innovation, drawing down critical federal financing that can more easily be spent on young people leaving foster care and the probation system.
Across the Golden State, workforce development boards distribute hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funds to organizations that provide apprenticeships, internships and job placements. The money also goes to employers who hire youth, in the form of wage subsidies.
Under the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, California workforce boards receive roughly $110 million annually to serve young people who’ve left school, are learning English, living in poverty or who have been otherwise disconnected from the workforce. There are roughly 17,000 eligible youth in California, ages 16 to 24, according to state employment data.
Among them is San Jose resident Sofia Jaquez, 22, who credits a job training program with helping her develop the social skills needed to be successful at work, and ultimately to land a paid internship with a nonprofit agency that fights human trafficking.
Before that, her struggles had been intense. After giving birth at age 16 to her daughter, Jaquez said she ended up homeless. She later developed postpartum depression, and struggled to focus in her high school classes.
But when she joined a program called Teen Success, Inc. at an alternative high school, things started to turn around. The group assisted with child care and paying for diapers — and also taught her skills to navigate workplace culture and etiquette and interview for jobs. The organization also helped Jaquez chart out her career and education opportunities after high school.
That combination of interlocking supports allowed Jaquez to pursue an independent, stable life.
“It was life-changing,” she said. “I was seeing myself as a teen mom and that was keeping me behind, but advocates and exposure to career training is what planted the seed.”
Jaquez, who’s now expecting her second child, graduated high school in 2019 and is now enrolled at Mission College in Santa Clara, with plans to study law.
“It doesn’t matter where we come from,” Jaquez said. “We can think big, and we don’t have to settle.”
Before California’s current plan for spending federal workforce funds was approved in August, youth advocates had long complained about a problematic requirement under the federal workforce act — a stipulation that 75% of the funds be spent on “out-of-school” youth. That requirement left many young people who were enrolled in school — or required to be enrolled to remain in extended foster care or to satisfy probation terms — ineligible for employment programs.
The unfortunate consequence of that has been to force youth and young adults “to leave the one place we want them to be, school, before they are eligible for these services,” the advocacy nonprofit California Opportunity Youth Network stated in a report this year.
Now, under its recently approved statewide waiver, California counties can spend half of their federal funds on young people who are in school.
A 2019 report by the California Workforce Development Board — the governor-appointed body that sets statewide regulations — found that at least 3,400 of the roughly 17,000 people served by local boards had histories in foster or the juvenile justice system or had been homeless. They tend to be those most in need of job-readiness services such as resume writing help, interview practice and clothes for the workplace.
A 2018 California State University study of L.A.’s project to connect marginalized youth with jobs and other essential services found former and current foster youth in the program were more likely to earn education degrees or training certificates, and homeless youth were more likely to gain employment than those who did not receive the services.
At The RightWay Foundation, a central tenet of the workforce program is to support young people who are healing from past trauma and to help them achieve self-sufficiency. In addition to job training and placement, the organization connects youth with therapy, housing and mentorship, even after they’ve graduated from the program.
The foundation’s Executive Director Franco Vega described how essential providing holistic services can be: It “eliminates young people having to jump through multiple hoops to get basic resources and keep reliving their trauma,” he said.
To expand the L.A. model, the California Opportunity Youth Network helped develop the waiver for the state which was made available to local boards this fall. Members of the network say if the model is followed, an additional 700 youth each year will benefit. The 17 local boards that have so far opted in span the state, from Contra Costa County in the north to Imperial County near the Mexico border.
Earlier this year, the Youth Network launched an initiative in the Bay Area. The lessons learned will then be shared with the remaining workforce boards across the state, participants said.
Lauri Collier of Opportunity Youth Collaborative said she anticipates that all 45 boards in California will eventually opt-in, building a much-needed workforce capacity within the state, while also better serving those in need.
“California has an aging workforce and needs to understand how the economy is changing, what new industries are emerging,” Collier said.