Let them work: Men's work programs give families and communities a leg up

Published: Sunday, May 5 2013 12:05 a.m. MDT

As Walton and Weaver both found, turning your life around is more complicated than just deciding to change.

"In this economy people who haven't made mistakes are having a hard time getting jobs," said Walton. "When you have a record, convincing someone to give you (a) second chance is an uphill battle. A lot of people out there just don't believe in them."

Weaver was 40 and had done several stints in prison before he realized that there was no good ending to the life he was living.

"All the men I looked up to, they're dead or in prison." This wasn't the life he wanted. But what else could he do? "I've been a gangster all my life," said Weaver. "I never had a job. I got a GED but I also spent a lot of time in prison." He applied for dozens of jobs, but no one was interested in hiring a 40-year-old man with no experience and a rap sheet.

The rejections started getting to him. Was he doing the right thing? Why wasn't it easier? Hard-pressed for the money he needed to support his children and ailing mother, Weaver remembers receiving "job offers" from old street contacts.

"It was hard to just hang up the phone," he said. "I was hurting for cash and didn't know if anything would work out for me."

Walton also struggled to stay straight after he was released from prison. Although he managed to secure a job bagging groceries at a local supermarket, his paltry wages were not enough to cover the cost of living in a major metropolitan city. "I remember crying at night," he said, "and I wondered why this has to be so hard."

Walton has a lot of sympathy for kids who come out a prison with the hope of dramatically changing their lives and end up right back where they started.

"You have to work hard, and stay the course ... because there will be a lot of nos before someone says yes," he said.

A helping hand

Walton and Weaver credit their new life trajectories to the support they received as participants in work training programs designed to help men transition to jobs in the mainstream economy. These programs function to help men like Walton and Weaver find people who will say yes to them.

Walton participated in a program called Year Up, a nonprofit program founded in 2000 by Wall Street investment banker Gerald Chertavian.

The Year Up program includes a six-month technical and professional skills training course followed by a six-month internship at a major corporation like AOL, JPMorgan Chase or State Street.

Six years ago, after completing his IT internship, Walton landed a job with MIT. He started in a reception position and over the past six years worked his way up to a managerial role. He joined the Year Up board of directors and is doing what he can to pay it forward.

"When I meet kids I can talk about how things really are," he said. "They know I've been where they are, that I got into trouble, that I went through this program, and that can give them the motivation and knowledge that it is possible to change."

Walton's experience with Year Up isn't unique. Data collected from the Economic Mobility Corp., a New York-based organization that evaluates social programs designed to help disadvantaged youth, shows the program has a significant positive impact. Researchers compared Year Up program participants with young people who applied for the program but were not admitted because of limited capacity.

They found that participants earned 30 percent more than those who did not participate. "These are the most exciting evaluation results we've seen in youth employment for 20 or 30 years — and the first to show a really substantial earnings gain," said Mark Elliott, president of Economic Mobility Corp.

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