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Let's Amplify Young People’s Strengths through Systems Changes

Posted by Sareen Keenan On December 19 2017

Sareen Dunleavy Keenan is a senior project manager at the Greater Twin Cities United Way, where she advances postsecondary and career opportunities through the Career Academies initiative.

Far too often we develop a program or pathway to help students join and blend into a system. In our 2018 pathways planning at the Greater Twin Cities United Way, we will center our practice on the belief that systems changes need to be made at all levels in order to fundamentally alter outcomes, particularly for our most marginalized communities.  In practice, this occurs when we shift the complexities off of the person being served and onto the folks paid to do the work.  Another frame shift that we will strive for is balancing the dichotomy between creating streamlined, effective pathways and still ensuring that youth have maximum mobility and cross-cutting skills that will allow them upward mobility in compensation and benefits as they move between industries.

In Minnesota’s career pathways work, we will work with teachers, employers, and internship providers to reduce complexity and identify relevant skills across industries. We will challenge each other to make specific and replicable changes that allow us to advance employment outcomes for students of color and American Indian students.  We can quickly advance outcomes by making changes that can be referred to as the “non-glamorous work of administrative changes.” In many cases, it is easy to lead with the belief that your program or pathway will be “the thing” that makes a difference in a student’s life. Stepping back a bit, how can we focus on a common set of work-readiness skills that students need to have and deemphasize the method of how those skills are attained?  This will allow us to honor the project management skills that it takes to get siblings fed, ready and on time to school with the same esteem that we would give to someone who learned them in a first robotics program.

We also need to leverage teachers’ strength in relating to students and enhance their ability to understand what is happening in industry through experiences such as externships. In addition to providing a meaningful field experience for teachers, externships facilitate the collection of information, which is necessary to transform the evaluation and promotion of youth entering the workforce.  Teachers have the great honor of working with young and diverse cohorts of students––the same population that industry hopes to recruit.  Employers need to leverage teachers’ pedagogical expertise to improve the onboarding process. When students enter the workforce, it is as if we have forgotten how much of the workday is not intuitive.

Additionally, employers have a tremendous opportunity to make the changes they have always wanted, but for which they previously lacked a financial justification. In order to compete for talent, employers can choose to radically change some or all of the pieces of the hiring process.  Instead of reusing old job postings, what would it look like to change every requirement to one that specifically seeks youth and candidates of color? Consider this: a seemingly benign requirement of “ability to communicate in written and oral form” privileges people in positions of power. However, adding or replacing the requirement with “ability to listen to a diverse set of audiences” not only is an asset to your clients or customers, but honors candidates’ lived experiences.  We have had early success in working deeply with HR to make changes to everything from degree requirements to preferred qualifications around volunteerism and specialized skills.

Even when the process is successful and we are able to hire diverse candidates, it is not enough to simply get folks in the door. Specifically training supervisors with methods and techniques to value employees’ strengths will be a necessary tool for our workforce. Far too often we seek diversity in the hiring process, but then evaluate how people blend into the status quo.  When asked to evaluate performance or fit of an employee, a supervisor will always default to their own lived experience.  Let’s use the example of writing a rough draft of a position paper for your supervisor. If you have a similar educational background and race to your supervisor, there is a good chance that you know what they are looking for and can complete the task with a great degree of comfort and accuracy.  If you do not share the same class or background as your supervisor, you may choose an earlier check-in point to ensure alignment.  Without training, a supervisor may feel that the first employee––the one who accomplished the task with great accuracy at the start––was the better employee because he or she “got it” faster even though the reasons he or she was able to do that had nothing to do with job performance.

I think of it like this: When one of my daughters was three years old and trying soccer for the first time, I explained the rules to her.  I simply told her “go get the ball and put it in the net.”  When the ball dropped, she ran to the ball and scooped it up in her hands.  She ran it to the net and threw it in. In that exact moment, I realized that she had never seen a soccer game. She didn’t know what the rules were. And I had played so many soccer games that I forgot that some people didn’t know that you can’t use your hands. How does this relate to work? Far too often we forget to explain the basic rules of work. We do not honor our youth by providing detailed explanations of how work happens, and we neglect to understand what a large advantage those currently in positions of power have by not only working within the system, but having the system reflect their norms and skill set.
I am excited for the work ahead in 2018 and firmly believe that we will create great opportunity for pathways-connected youth and our future workforce by centering and amplifying their strengths. Now, we all need to engage in the non-glamorous work of administrative changes create opportunities to hire, retain, and promote youth of color.