Preparing youths for the job market

BY CINDY CARTER, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG – Landing the perfect job can be difficult for anyone, but finding part-time employment with corporations willing to work around a high school student’s busy schedule can at times seem like an impossible feat. That’s why I Support Youth, Inc., was created.

Lewis Stephens and his crew have worked tirelessly for years in providing youths jobs within the city. To date, the I Support Youth organization has provided 177 jobs. Stephens targets neighborhoods known for high numbers of juvenile crimes.

“We walked the community for a good three months asking people inside the community what it is that they want,” said Stephens.

Lewis Stephens

Lewis Stephens

He wanted to make sure his organization was providing the right resources for those in need. They surveyed 500 youths in St. Petersburg and the main complaint was not enough opportunities to make money legally.

“So our mission is to focus in on jobs.”

I Support Youth work with local fast-food restaurants such as McDonald’s, Burger King and Taco Bell. They also are in touch with hiring managers from Publix. But Stephens didn’t just work hard to put youths in jobs and then leave them alone.

After the first batch of job interviews, Stephens realized his program needed to be tweaked. Potential employees were showing up to interviews in shorts and employers complained that social skills were needed in order to employ the students being sent to them.

So Stephens got to work. He formed a training program for all youths wanting to be placed in a job. His personalized job readiness program is offered six times a year.

Each training runs for four weeks with each Monday set aside to teach interviewing skills and how to properly dress. After the first week of training, Stephens expects participants to show up in proper dress, shirt and tie for the boys and business attire for the girls.

Hiring managers have worked with Stephens on the requirements needed in order to make a productive employee. So Stephens has trainees practice speaking with others to strengthen their social skills. Participants also are run through cleaning drills to ensure they not only know how to clean but understand it will be an expectation on their jobs.

“We surprise them,” said Stephens. He wants to know if his trainees are ready for a real job. “We say, ‘Hey, put on some gloves we are going to clean up the bathroom.’ From there we can tell who is prepared and who isn’t.”

Not everyone who signs up and enters the job readiness program will be ready for the dedication it takes to not only get a job but also keep it. Stephens is proud to say though that roughly 95 percent of participants stay in the job they are placed in until they head off to college.

Stephens believes his program is the best out there, offering year-round employment instead of just a summer job. He also advertises there are no hidden seminars or classes that parents need to take for their kids to become employed.

What is required, however, is that potential employees finish the four-week training and in addition complete a community service project. Stephens wants his protégés to go out into the community and gain experience talking to others, building their social skills.

“What we are finding is a lot of our kids just really don’t know how to communicate,” said Stephens, who goes out with the youths during the last week of training to nursing homes and other areas where the young men and women can get some practice. “They don’t know how to sit face to face and talk to anybody.”

Stephens said I Support Youth is making strides to improve the lives of local youths, 30 teens at a time by rehabilitating troubled youths before their record follows them or before the crimes escalate beyond intervention.

“Some kids, when they see the work they have to do are just not mentally prepared for it,” explained Stephens. He understands it takes a very mature young person to be able to manage school, manage the outside activities and in addition manage a part-time job.

Stephens will be holding another training session in Feb. and although most slots are already filled, there will be another opportunity for youths to find employment come April. Each training session yields 25-30 kids at a time entering the job force, which takes a lot of time behind the scenes to coordinate.

I Support Youth is especially grateful to Casper McDonald’s for their willingness to always place youths at their restaurant. He hopes more establishments around St. Petersburg will hop on board and offer to hire from within the troubled neighborhoods. He also has received tremendous support from Councilman Charlie Gerdes and hopes others will step up to find funding so more teens can be helped.

In the meantime, Stephens is working toward raising funds himself so that he can hopefully offer a stipend to the hardworking volunteers that are consistently at the trainings and making the calls to place teens into jobs.

Those willing to donate or parents wanting to get their teens signed up on a waiting list for April are encouraged to check out the Facebook page for I Support Youth, Inc.

To date, they have been involved in over 40 events and nine college tour visits. You can also contact Stephens directly at (727) 643-8892. Their website, isupportyouthinc.com, should be up and running any day now.

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