Ready or Not?

When I was a teenager looking for a summer job, I applied to work in a factory on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. The job involved putting plastic dolls into boxes to be shipped to stores. The work was easy and boring. Every other worker was middle aged or older. The factory was loud, dreary and definitely not air-conditioned! I got the job and lasted one day. Clearly, I wasn’t ready; specifically, I had not anticipated the unpleasant realities of the job (hot, boring) nor was I ready to stick with an unpleasant situation in order to have a solid job or reference for my resume.

Back in April, our organization, Westchester Children’s Association (WCA), held an event at which Karen Pittman, Founder and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, spoke eloquently about readiness as something that all young people deserve, much as they need and deserve to be healthy, educated and safe.

So what is readiness? How do youth become ready and what happens when they are not ready?

Readiness is a term that encompasses a range of knowledge, skills, attitudes and attributes that help young people make a successful transition to adulthood. These would include academic knowledge and skills, such as literacy and math, as well as social or interpersonal competencies, such as getting along with peers and supervisors, or resolving conflicts. It also includes things like “grit,” the ability to stick to a task, even when it is no fun.

When young people arrive at the threshold of adulthood without being ready, they have a much more difficult time completing their education and making a solid connection to the world of work.

We know that a child’s path to readiness starts at birth.

Throughout their lives, kids build competencies, attitudes and attributes that will help them be ready for adult responsibilities. Young people learn and develop these competencies in a variety of settings including family and school. But especially as they enter adolescence, settings outside of family and school, such as youth programs and employment, provide important opportunities to build readiness.

Summer and after-school jobs are critical environments for testing and developing readiness. Employers play a role in building readiness just by hiring young people. They can have an even greater impact when they have realistic and clear expectations for their young employees, recognize what young people need to learn, allow time for learning, and provide second chances!

The entire community has a role to play in helping youth be ready for adulthood.

When we as a community rally around promoting young people’s readiness, our collective impact is greater than when our efforts are isolated or directed at different goals. Last summer, we at Westchester Children’s Association saw a great example of this in action, when the various sectors that touch the lives of young people collaborated to promote youths’ readiness.

For many years, Westchester County has had a long-standing program that places foster youth in summer jobs within county parks. The program was great in theory, but in reality the parks supervisors were unprepared for the young workers sent to them.

These were teens who were living away from their families, who had experienced abuse or other trauma, and many of whom had learning or psychiatric difficulties. The young people also had little prior experience and no training for their jobs. What’s more, the program had a rule that if a kid bombed out one summer (mouthing off to a supervisor, too many absences) they were ineligible to come back in subsequent years….ever!

So with leadership from WCA, foster agencies and county departments revamped the program. Foster care social workers spent more time helping youth complete their applications correctly and helped them prepare and plan for the realities of a job. County social workers helped the Parks Department supervisors to understand the life experiences of their young workers and to develop strategies to effectively manage and train them. As a result, 50 teens had a successful summer employment experience, building positive attributes, skills and attitudes and putting them further along on the road to readiness.

Just as I wasn’t quite ready for my disastrous factory job as a teenager, these youth needed support from the community to be able to take full advantage of the job opportunities available to them. Their success will ultimately benefit our entire community as they transition to productive adulthood.

All our children deserve the same.

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