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Gerald Chertavian is redefining how talent is perceived in the United States by solving America’s growing skills gap while providing employment opportunities for disconnected 18 to 24-year-olds. Year Up creates a new pathway for potentially millions of marginalized citizens to become initiative-takers and contributors to growth in America’s businesses and society.
The New Idea
Gerald believes that you solve the talent shortage in the U.S. by convincing employers and corporations that urban young adults are worthy of investment. By placing them in a high support, high performance atmosphere they develop the attitudes, behaviors, and communication skills that will make them an asset to their employers, their coworkers, and themselves.
Gerald’s organization, Year Up, concentrates on the 4.3 million “disconnected youth,” aged 18 to 24, who are neither in school nor employed and are essentially unplugged from the economic mainstream. Gerald provides these young adults with an opportunity to set their trajectory in life by enlisting in a yearlong professional development program targeted specifically to their needs. In a high-expectation, high support environment, Year Up, students earn a stipend while taking classes for six months in technical, communication, and professional skills, followed by a six-month paid apprenticeship with major companies in Atlanta, Boston, New York, Metro D.C., Providence, and San Francisco.
Using this approach, Year Up achieves extraordinarily high levels of satisfaction from its major corporate clients who now count Year Up as part of their sourcing strategy rather than their corporate social responsibility. Senior executives from large firms such as State Street Bank testify that Gerald’s solution provides them with a cost-effective source of reliable, entry-level professional talent. The jobs that Year Up pursues cannot easily be outsourced because they require a physical presence. In addition, the demand for these jobs continues to increase.
Gerald must break several patterns in order for Year Up to be successful. He must teach students who are often from dysfunctional urban areas how to function in a corporate environment, and he must convince corporate executives and hiring directors from major corporations that Year Up is part of their sourcing strategy—not a part of their corporate philanthropy. Gerald has had great success in teaching students from low-income, urban communities how to effectively navigate formal, corporate environments. Between 2000 and 2009, Year Up graduated more than 1,100 students, and 84 percent of these students have secured a job earning $15.60 within four months of graduating. Approximately 45 percent of Year Up’s students go on to enroll in college.
The key to accomplishing both of these goals is Year Up’s attention to the personal development of its students. Each Year Up student receives daily experiential training in communications and professional etiquette. Each is assigned to a mentor. Each is given an advisor and has access to a social worker if needed. Gerald insists, and his staff concurs, that each student be greeted with respect and treated as a professional throughout the course. The students must dress professionally when taking classes. The instructors use respectful titles when addressing the students. The students are instructed in how to network with their coworkers when they are placed in their internships. This consistent projection that they are worthy of respect when combined with the acquisition of real skills tied to an opportunity to reset their lives has consistently achieved a breakthrough in attitude that is unparalleled in typical workforce development programs.
Companies that hire Year Up students rave about their employees’ professionalism. “They show up ready to work,” says Partners in Health Care’s Deputy CIO Mary Finlay, whose staff of 1,400 IT professionals service ten hospitals and other companies in Massachusetts. “And seven years ago, when people started coming up to me unsolicited and complimenting the work and attitude of the Year Up interns, I knew that I had to add them to my sourcing strategy. They didn’t know that the Year Up students were not just regular employees.”
Despite all the ups and downs in the economy over the last forty years, the number of poor people in the U.S. has remained at about 40 million. Even though the U.S. has evolved from manufacturing economy to a primarily service and knowledge-based economy, the poor today look very much like they did in the 1960s. They are mostly black, Latino, and recent immigrants. They live in cities, and many work at least two jobs but still cannot support their families or envision a path to economic self-sufficiency.
For the 4.3 million young adults who have graduated high school in America’s urban areas, there is a high probability that they will start a family before ever finding the means to escape poverty. The day-to-day urgencies of living in a poor community may trap them in dead-end temporary and cyclical jobs and leave them vulnerable to credit scams such as payday loans and high-interest rate credit cards. They do not typically have a college degree or any expectation of going to college. If you are fortunate enough to be born into an aspiring family willing to sacrifice so that you can go to college, then you have a real chance of breaking out of the working poor population. This works for many. This worked for Gerald. But if you grow up in the housing projects—then you will likely not get that opportunity. Current workforce development programs have not and cannot make a dent in this statistic.
The typical job training or service corps program in the U.S. does one of two things: It either charges the student a fee to teach them an employable skill, or it trains them for free through a government or foundation-backed program. In either case, the amount of time dedicated to the “soft skills” of communication, conflict management, and professionalism are insufficient. Not surprisingly, when graduates of these programs fail to be employable, the most consistent complaint is that they don’t show up to work on time, are not reliable, and have a “poor attitude.” Transferring the technical skill is not the secret to success, transforming the attitude is.
In forming Year Up, Gerald recognized that he was, in fact, solving a real economic problem. Year Up targets these students, but it also simultaneously and effectively addresses an important corporate world dilemma. The U.S. is experiencing a shortage in Help Desk Support and Desktop Support workers. These are hands-on IT jobs that cannot be outsourced to a call center overseas. For the last thirty years, most corporations have held the position that the “inner city” is a poor source of employees for such jobs because they lack the requisite education and professional skills. Yet companies are no longer willing to pay the $60,000 salaries that an entry-level technical support person could earn in the late 1990s. Necessity is forcing them to reconsider their options, and Year Up is giving them the quality workers that they will increasingly need.
Year Up exists to close the opportunity divide for urban youth while providing corporations much-needed entry-level talent. The Year Up program is a one-year intensive training program that combines technical and professional skills, paid apprenticeships and college credit. During the first six months, students learn marketable Desktop Support/IT Helpdesk and Investment Operations skills. Professional skills and business communications classes provide practical tools that enable students to succeed in both business and academic settings. After completing six months of training, students are placed in paid six-month apprenticeships with top companies, applying their skills, gaining experience and broadening their industry contacts.
Year Up has just entered the second phase of a three-phase strategy. The goal of phase one was to prove the Year Up concept in the Greater Boston area. The proof points were that, over five years, 85 percent of Year Up students completed the program regardless of the degree of trauma or challenges in their personal background. Additionally, 85 percent of those graduates earned jobs that paid $15/hour or better. And, most important, the corporate CIOs who used Year Up interns hired those interns and became their champions—meaning that they were willing to personally call other CIOs and recommend that they too use Year Up. This last point greatly enables Year Up’s second phase.
The goal of phase two is expansion. Year Up currently has offices in Boston, Washington, D.C., Providence, RI, New York City, Atlanta, and San Francisco—and it will increase students served from 800 to 1,600 annually. It is building financial sustainability for the various sites, building a national infrastructure model, and creating a national replication strategy that will be deployed in phase three. Despite this growth, Year Up does not intend to directly serve its target population—the 4.3 million disconnected young people in the U.S. Instead, it will adopt a multi-faceted influence strategy to bring about broader systemic change proving that its approach is more successful than existing workforce development programs, thereby creating pressure for it to be imitated and adopted. It needs to come from corporate executives demanding Year Up-style employees and interns. Once this demand ratchets up, Gerald wants to create an entity to meet some of that demand and to push workforce development policy toward Year Up models. This phase is designed to shake down Year Up’s human processes and scaling systems. They are working with mezzanine funders, such as The Jenesis Group and New Profit, to provide the capital to scale and document their intellectual property as they near Phase Three. Phase three will be to create an entity whose only purpose is to replicate Year Up sites and to inform public policy.
The goal of phase three is to further Year Up’s cause. This will involve expanding the organization to twenty-five urban areas and serving some 5,000 students per year in Year Up programs (both company-owned and affiliates/franchises). The organization will have reached a point where it will have effectively advanced a broad public policy agenda and influenced corporate hiring practices.
Gerald Chertavian is a self-made man of singular character and focus. He possesses a rare capacity to create financial, structural, and cultural systems imbued with his love for developing people. Having been a successful businessman, he is a new member of the Young President’s Organization. He is the grandson of immigrants and says that his grandfather and his father were men who believed in working hard, so he has never been one to regard set-backs as failures. In fact, he says that it was a failing grade on his first paper at Bowdoin College that motivated him to graduate summa cum laude, which he did in 1987. He went on to graduate from Harvard Business School with honors as well.
Gerald says that he launched Year Up in 2000 because of his ten-year-old Dominican “little brother” David, who he began mentoring in 1988. His journeys to the Manhattan housing projects where David lived revealed to him how bright and talented kids like him were, but also how they lacked the opportunity, guidance, and skills they would need to succeed in the professional world. Gerald mentored David who later went on to get a job with Disney Studios.
He was so moved by his experience that he wrote his Harvard Business School entrance examination essay on starting an organization to address this “Opportunity Divide.” After business school, Gerald spent seven years working hard and mentoring David. Taking full advantage of his degrees in economics and business, he founded Conduit Communications and built it into a $20 million corporation with 130 employees in three countries. Then in 1999, he sold his company to pursue his true purpose in life. In 2000, he launched Year Up.
Gerald’s remarkable capacity to personally identify with kids living in housing projects allows him to enter inadequate housing projects and be welcomed just as much as he was welcomed on Wall Street. Even as founder of Year Up, he still mentors participants and keeps his relationship with David.