Area youths are finding pathways toward careers through a Connected Lane County program which is servicing more than 200 youths in the Eugene-Springfield and South Lane area.
A combination of career-oriented instruction and case management, the program provides paid work experience for youths aged 14-24 in the community, enabling young people to carve out individualized career opportunities.
Connected Lane County Executive Director Heidi Larwick is so far pleased with the outlook of the newest version of the program.
“From our perspective, we’re really happy … because I think this model could work well for a lot of youth,” she said.
Connected Lane County’s aim is to create pathways for youths to strive beyond graduation — one way of achieving this is to better connect the relevance of what is learned in the classroom to students’ lives after graduation.
About three years ago, the organization launched “Elevate,” a program to complement in-classroom learning with practical applications in possible careers.
“We want to give them a career-connected learning experience like an industry tour or a job shadow or an internship that might show them why they’re learning specific math or science concepts so that when they go back to the classroom they’re really engaged and curious about what they’re learning,” said Larwick.
Then late last summer, the nonprofit had the opportunity to apply for the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) program, a federal resource which was designed to improve the nation’s workforce system by aiding those with significant barriers to employment.
For Connected Lane County, this has meant focusing on youths whose pathways toward a career have veered off course for various reasons, such as homelessness, trouble with the law or a lack of a high school diploma.
“WIOA is all about re-engaging and setting them on a path to employment,” said Larwick. “So, what we’ve done is we’ve taken Elevate, our career-connected learning program, and we’ve added WIOA, which adds a layer of case management. So, it’s extra support for students who need to have a little bit more guidance.”
Youths are also offered personal finances classes and resume-building workshops.
From the participating business or organization perspective, various degrees of commitment and engagement are on the table, ranging from a simple virtual chat to a three-month mentorship or internship. Youths additionally come with a case manager to support them and check in.
The program can also be an attractive opportunity for those who sign on as it covers the youths’ wages for their 10-25 hours of work a week.
“In some cases, we’ve had youth actually get hired before their trial period is over because they’ve been so good and so now they’re working full time for that company,” said Larwick.
About half of the Cottage Grove youth who have been part of the program with South Lane School District have moved up to the Eugene-Springfield area, she said, and are finding pathways there.
Though Connected Lane County got the WIOA five-year contract last summer, it has only since January been placing youths in work experience situations with the federal resource.
Part of that delay has been an effort to establish partners and get youths prepared with workshops and personal finance classes.
“We also recently met with the Cottage Grove Chamber of Commerce and have been talking with them about us identifying youth and then helping connect them with those work experiences in Cottage Grove,” Larwick said.
Connected Lane County has so far managed find work experience slots for at least three youths between the City of Cottage Grove and local nonprofit Community Sharing.
Community Sharing Food Pantry Manager Glenn Trujillo said the nonprofit has also used the WIOA program in the past to positive effect.
“I can say it really is a helpful program — not only for us, but for the kids,” he said. “They really have been a valuable part of our program, so hopefully they do keep coming.”
Local businesses Dot’s Trophy Shop, Healing Matrix, Green Day Garden Supply and Zen Paws have all signed agreements with Connected Lane County as partners of the program, as has the Al Kennedy High School garden, said Larwick.
The program has the capacity to support more youths, but “it’s just a matter of identifying them,” she said. “This last year has been pretty difficult for students and youth, I would say, with job loss and then maybe a little bit of disengagement from school since they haven’t been in school. So I could see the need actually growing.”
Lane County runaway and homeless youth programs alone served 1,404 youth in 2018, according to the county’s Youth Homelessness Needs Assessment.
“So I would say that the need is pretty great. And we’ve maybe just touched the surface,” said Larwick.
One of the main difficulties is the time commitment needed for each individual as each case carries its own set of challenges.
Businesses and other organizations, though, can play a key role in laying the foundation by offering their partnership.
Larwick added that any business is welcome to sign on as long as it can provide a safe environment for youth and a broad range of commitments include job shadowing, virtual meetings to learn about the workplace and actual onsite work experience — simply opening the door and showing youths what opportunities are available can go a long way.
Still, Larwick noted that the program is focused on finding experiences which could set youths on a long-term path toward a career.
“So we are looking at, not necessarily the fast food type things or a convenience store, but a place that they could grow into and that could provide a living wage,” she said.
As such, the nonprofit has focused on big sectors in Lane County like manufacturing, construction, technology and healthcare.
Though youth interests are vastly different, the program has seen a higher interest in manufacturing and construction.
Larwick hopes that, as the program grows, it can produce a passionate, creative and curious next generation of workers rising up through the workforce.
“I think it’s important because it gives youth and students a sense of confidence and a sense of ambition and a kind of belief about themselves and what they can accomplish and do,” she said. “And I think that type of person, and those types of people are really going to be able to contribute to a thriving economy.”
For more information or to learn how to participate, email Connected Lane County Project Coordinator Brianna Vincent at [email protected]
“We would love to see more business involvement, because I think it makes the job and a career real for the youth — that it’s a possibility that these things are out there,” said Larwick. “The hope is that we’ll just keep getting better and build more relationships and have more youths working in Cottage Grove.”
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