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'Year Up' Program Gives Young Adults A Leg Up On Job Market

KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld

The only thing motivating Freda Crichton to finish high school was the prospect of joining the Marines with her twin sister after graduation.

Her twin got in. But Crichton didn’t.

Crichton, now 20, spent the next few months sitting around the house, unemployed and directionless – like a lot of young people of her generation.  In recent years, the unemployment rate for Americans in their late teens and early twenties has been two to three times that of older workers. It’s especially hard for young people, like her, without college degrees.

“There’s at least 15,000 young people (ages 18 to 24) in the Puget Sound area that do not have jobs and are not in school, which is an astounding number,” said Lisa Chin, executive director of Year Up Puget Sound.

Year Up is a year-long career training program for low-income young people of color who lack four-year degrees.

For Crichton, discovering Year Up was the start of a new dream.

There was just one problem: it focused on technology, which Crichton used – but didn’t really understand.

“I was really scared to do Year Up because I really didn’t know anything," she said. "But day two, day three of Year Up, we’re already taking apart a computer, looking at the components, putting it back together. And for us to be doing that day two and having that basic knowledge – it’s amazing.”

Year Up’s programs in Seattle and 10 other cities nationwide offer 18-to-24-year-olds six months of paid job-skills training, followed by a six-month corporate internship doing anything from testing video games to customer service.

The program focuses on career skills that can land participants jobs that pay at least $15 an hour after one year of training.

Crichton’s internship includes software quality control and work on the IT help desk at the Washington Federal bank headquarters in Seattle.

She's so thrilled to be working she shows up before her shift is supposed to start at 8:30 in the morning. "I actually come in around 7 or 8 a.m.," she said. "We only have to be here eight hours a day, but I always stay until 5. If there’s work to do, then I’m happy to do it. I love to do the work.”

The work involves all kinds of computer problems Crichton couldn’t have solved a year ago.

She goes down a list of tickets she recently resolved from bank branches all around the country: “Computer black screen, computer died, computer monitor request – we get a lot of those.”

[asset-images[{"caption": "Year Up interns Fadumo Ali and Freda Crichton spent their six-month internship at Washington Federal headquarters in downtown Seattle, where they worked on software quality control and resolved IT help desk tickets.", "fid": "8466", "style": "card_280", "uri": "public://201401/yearup-crichtonali.JPG", "attribution": "Credit KUOW Photo/Ann Dornfeld"}]]

But perhaps more valuable for Crichton’s career – she’s learned that she gets excited about the kind of work that many people can’t stand.

“I love paperwork," she said. "I just love being busy and paperwork is something that takes a lot of time. And Excel as well.”

That doesn't surprise Year Up's Chin.

“We like to say that we really don’t give them anything in this program," she said. "They bring it all themselves and we help them reveal what it is.” Chin said the program gets 10 applicants for every available seat.

For a lot of young people, a four-year degree is just not a realistic short-term goal, she said. They need something that pays the bills as soon as possible. And that takes skill.

“We teach what we call the hard skills: what the elements on your computer are called,” said Chin, "and the harder skills, which are, ‘Now, how do I talk to somebody?’”

Nationwide, 85 percent of graduates are working or in school full-time four months after completing the program.

At Washington Federal, help desk supervisor Pat Harding said the three Year Up interns they’ve had have hit the ground running.

“The turnaround time, I would say for them, is a lot less than it would be for someone we’d just hire off the streets." Harding said. "They teach them also not just computer stuff, but also how to interact, and talk, and be productive, and give input."

Companies like Washington Federal pay Year Up $23,000 per intern.

It’s an investment in the community, but also their businesses.

Harding said they hired their last Year Up intern full-time.

Year started with KUOW: 2008