Nonprofit steers young people adrift toward useful careers

Jesus Abarca is the first to tell you he was a troubled teen. Born in Mexico, Jesus immigrated to metro Atlanta when he was 8 years old. By the time he was in high school, he routinely skipped high school classes.

One day, while wandering the halls of Fulton County’s Independence High School, he decided to do something productive: he attended a job fair and met representatives with Year Up, a national nonprofit that provides jobs training and internships to people ages 18-24.

It changed his life.

Most students in Year Up have gotten off track with their education and employment goals.

The program refocuses participants by putting them through a rigorous six months of daily training and education, then places them in six-month internships with local companies. The goal is to give them job skills that Georgia businesses are clamoring for, help them land jobs and open doors for them to more education, if they want it.

The majority of Year Up students attend classes at the Midtown campus. Last year, 3,300 people applied for 250 spots there.

This year, Year Up and Gwinnett Technical College teamed up to offer coursework to 40 students at the school’s Alpharetta campus on Old Milton Parkway in personal computer repair and personal computer networking.

The students are enrolled in high-demand information technology programs and get experience in the real world of work, said Mary Beth Byerly, vice president for Institutional Advancement at Gwinnett Technical College.

“What is exciting is, after completing the program, these students will be ready to go to work in high-demand IT professions — a win-win for both graduates and employers,” Byerly said.

This class of Gwinnett students are anxiously awaiting their version of match day, when they find out which metro Atlanta company they will be interning with.

Abarca, now 22, feels he is already steps ahead of where he was.

“You learn the gift of feedback and how to carry yourself in a professional manner and setting. I am very grateful for the program,” he said.

After watching a “60 Minutes” profile of Year Up, Kim Williams was inspired to quit her job as COO for iCorps Technologies to lead Year Up Greater Atlanta. She loves the idea of helping young people develop in areas that employers say are critically important and often lacking in today’s young workers: soft skills.

“We feel companies hire for technical competence, but they fire for behavior,” said Williams. “We teach communication skills, handshakes, accountability — showing up on time. Feedback is huge for us. Every single Friday we give feedback so they can learn how to take and give feedback respectfully. So, when they do get it, it doesn’t sting and they don’t panic.”

There are approximately 900 Year Up Atlanta alumni. Most go to work immediately, often with the company they interned with. The average yearly starting salary is $36,000.

“When they graduate, we take a snapshot in 4 months to see how many have jobs …We average in the 90s (percent).”

Year Up offers programs in information technology, financial operations, sales and customer support, business operations and software development. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts 65 percent of jobs in the future economy will require post-high school education, and that some of the hardest jobs for companies to fill nationally include sales, IT and accounting and finance jobs. The BLS also list those jobs among the most in demand.

What is the prospect of another recession in Georgia’s future? Read the forecast for Georgia’s economy here.

Before enrolling in Year Up last August, Megan Philip was hanging out with a bad crowd, partying and headed down a destructive path. Her wake-up call came when her brother was killed in a drive-by shooting in another state. Philip was driving, her brother was in the passenger seat.

Philip learned about Year Up from a friend’s social media post. “I saw her graduating and I wondered what she was doing. Previously we saw each other at a party. When I saw her graduate, I looked it up.” At first, she thought it sounded too good to be true. Now she’s excited to be learning computer coding and is improving her phone etiquette.

“In the small space of time I’ve been here I’ve learned to speak ‘proper.’ Even speaking over the phone I’ve been getting better,” she said.

Her biggest challenges? Learning how to adjust to other people’s personalities and work as a member of a team.

Jesus Abarca, waiting to her about his business match, hopes to get an internship at AT&T or Auto Trader, which is owned by Cox Enterprises, the parent company of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has gone from being a rebellious teen to a straight-A student.

Those are the kind of results that attracted Bonita Flournoy to Year Up/Gwinnett Tech. A chemist by training, she’s worked in higher education for 28 years, most recently as a dean at Atlanta Metropolitan College. While attending a Year Up graduation, “I was enamored with the testimonials of the students,” said Flournoy, now site director for Year Up/Gwinnett Tech.

“I’m still educating and training young adults; but in a more expeditious way. This is giving them an opportunity for a sustainable life.”

Students need grit and perseverance to make it through the year-long program, and almost all of them do. “Whatever survival skills you had, you will need them. It’s almost a boot camp.”

Year Up has partnerships with 50 Atlanta area companies, including Rollins, Kaiser Permanente, Career Builder and AT&T. Internship companies pay a fee to Year Up that covers about 60 percent of program costs. The remainder is covered through fundraising, including the annual Opportunity Breakfast. Information, go to: