Youth May Reclaim Lost Dreams Through Workforce Agency


Imagine a young woman who says she doesn’t have any dreams for her life anymore. She’s 18, and is described as “a sweet girl who’s been through some rough times.”

She hasn’t lived with her parents, who are divorced, for two or three years, but stays with a friend and that friend’s grandparents. Her mind is filled with shadows and confusion and uncertainty, and, from time to time, fields of wildflowers.

Her childhood may be unfinished, or finished too soon.

She has very little control over her own life. The dreams still exist, deep down, but she feels like they’ve been buried. Is it her own fault? Her family’s? The community’s? Or some combination of those?

“I am nothing,” she might tell a stranger, one she, for some reason, trusted, but would she mean it?

Imagine that she’s earned her GED. She’s earned her driver’s license. She wants to work. But she has no transportation and no work experience.

Her possible choices are limited, basically, to a few:

1. Keep “hoping” that she’ll somehow find a job.

2. Go into the military, which may have some appeal and, along with the risks, some long-term benefits but may or may not be right for her.

3. Find a spot in Job Corps, which is a free education and training program for low-income young people, or Americorps/VISTA, a national anti-poverty program similar to a domestic Peace Corps that places volunteers in communities throughout the United States to enrich educational programs and vocational training for needy people.

4. Eventually wind up on one or another sort of long-term public assistance.

5. Or, perhaps, get into a short-term state program through Workforce Solutions that provides training and, if she’s qualified, transportation, and help her wind up with a career and as a contributor to society.

Now, stop imagining.

Know that this young one is one of thousands in Texas — young men and women — in similar situations, facing similar limited choices. We know this because there are 28 Workforce Solutions regions in the state, and one of the smaller ones — Northeast Texas Workforce Solutions, which covers the far northeast part of the state: Bowie, Cass, Delta, Franklin, Hopkins, Lamar, Morris, Red River, and Titus counties —works with as many as 150 young people in similar situations every year. If each of the 28 territories helps no more than that many, that’s more than 4,000 people a year; most of the territories are larger and many are in bigger population centers.

Not all of these young ones come from the same or similar circumstances as the imagined example, although quite a few do.

Most of the ones in need of help don’t even know the program exists.

Stacie Gregory, director of special programs for Northeast Texas Workforce Solutions, said the state-run, federally funded Workforce Investment Act (WIA), keeps its clients close to home while they get valuable job experience and skills, through targeted training, that lead to brighter futures. WIA helps young ones up to age 21, but is not limited to youth. It also helps retrain adult workers who’ve lost their jobs through massive layoffs or other circumstances. Goals include improving the quality of the workforce, reducing welfare dependency, and enhancing the productivity and competitiveness of the Texas economy.

WIA youth programs provide job and career assessment including review of academic and occupational skills and helps build individual plans including age-appropriate career goals, preparation for postsecondary educational opportunities, and links between academic and occupational learning — despite, sometimes, long odds.

“Through the years, individuals have come into the youth program in shorts and baggy t-shirts, with no idea what to do, and we helped them get jobs, get experience, or go on to college which they had not been planning to do,” Gregory said. “WIA has been around long enough — earlier called the Job Training Program Act — that we’ve had staff who in their youth were in the summer youth program.”

Gregory said challenges for younger workers as the economy begins to improve include the fact that a lot of adult jobseekers with experience are filling some jobs that have been traditionally open to younger, less-experienced jobseekers.

In addition to lack of experience, one of the other challenges for young jobseekers, she said, is lack of so-called “soft skills.” Soft skills are the social graces — including communication, personal habits, friendliness, and optimism — that characterize relationships with other people. In some jobs, those skills actually are more important than technical skills.

“Generally, the population used to be brought up with a work ethic such as showing up on time and dressing properly. Sometimes the younger generation is not getting that training at home or anywhere else,” Gregory said, acknowledging that just a few without these skills can make it harder for others. “We’ve had to incorporate into our job search workshops things like, is your email address appropriate to give to an employer. Employers are now checking Facebook and Twitter accounts, anywhere they can find you as part of the reference process. If all they see is you partying all the time and doing things you shouldn’t, they are less likely to hire you.”

Young people accepted into the WIA program learn, basically, how to act on the job and then get help with job searches including skills assessments, steps to take to improve those skills, and job interviews.

“One of our programs is the summer youth program, a subsidized employment program where we try to match people’s interests with employers in the area, and to create a short-term job for them,” Gregory said. “If an employer has an opening and likes them, they may make an offer for entry type positions whether it’s sales, cashiers, office work, or something else.”

Such jobs are a foot in the door for individuals like the imagined young woman who says she no longer has dreams, who wants a bright future but is filled with shadows and confusion and uncertainty. Will she become simply another statistic?

Hopefully, she can finally admit that she does have dreams, and now, if she works hard, she can find opportunity and reclaim them. 

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