They do not start out looking like blue-chip candidates for Corporate America.
Some of them are like Stanley Narcisse, whose criminal record threatened to sidetrack any career plans for the 29-year-old father, who now works as a service-desk technician for Ariad Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge.
But most participants in Year Up, the Boston-based job-training and education program, tend to more closely resemble Margarita Polanco, Paola Walter, or Raul Williams.
Both college dropouts, Polanco, 23, now manages clients’ mutual funds for Bank of New York Mellon in Everett, while Walter, 22, is a senior fund accountant with State Street Global Services. Williams, 25, was stuck in low-paying, dead-end jobs before winning an IT internship with Consigli Construction Co. in Milford, where he was hired full time in March.
Founded in 2001 by investment banker and social entrepreneur Gerald Chertavian, Year Up tries to help inner-city adults ages 18-24 bridge the so-called “opportunity divide” through training, discipline, and motivation, even in a jobs-challenged economy.
The yearlong program, which turns away half of its applicants, prides itself on being selective and demanding. “Our message is: We won’t lower the bar for you, because State Street and Fidelity won’t either,” says Casey Recupero, executive director of Year Up’s Boston office. “We’ll set it high, but we’ll also give you the support you need to succeed.”
The 1,300 students currently enrolled per year nationwide — 320 in Boston — earn a modest stipend and college credits. The first six months focus on workplace etiquette and professional training in information technology or finance followed by a six-month corporate internship. Applicants, who typically hear about the program via word of mouth from program alumni or city youth workers, must have a high school degree or GED equivalent. Requirements include a written application essay and personal references, but most important, according to Recupero, is a demonstrated motivation to succeed.
To date, Year Up, which operates in 10 US cities and looks to expand, boasts 5,000 graduates and aims for a 75 percent graduation rate. Of those who finish, at least 85 percent are expected to secure full-time employment — at a minimum of $15 an hour, or $30,000 per year — or enter a full-time degree program.
The program sees itself as a bridge between companies and communities. “We’re bilingual. We speak corporate, and we speak neighborhood,” says Recupero.
Corporate supporters like State Street, Partners Healthcare, and Harvard University have learned to take what Recupero calls “a more nuanced approach to recruiting” by putting as much value on job experience, talent, and character as they do a college degree. But in the end, the success of the program depends on the success of its graduates.
“One, their success makes it more likely an employer will take the next Year Up grad,” Recupero notes. Secondly, he adds, having 1,400 Boston-area alums moving up the management ladder “gives us an army of people changing people’s minds” about old models of education and opportunity.
“If you’re looking for a sob story, that’s not where I’m coming from,” says Narcisse, over lunch one day this month. Still, at an earlier, crucial juncture in his life his future looked bleak, he admits. A rap sheet for drug possession and check fraud when he was in his early 20s “was really coming back to bite me.”
Growing up in Dorchester after his parents emigrated from Haiti, Narcisse graduated from Brighton High School but got caught up in street life. Serving probation and making financial restitution kept him from doing serious jail time, and he took courses at a community college to enhance his job prospects. But when he became a father and lost a job to a CORI report because of his felony convictions, he knew a major life change was in order.
A friend told him about Year Up. “I wasn’t sold on their way of doing things,” he admits, “but I thought it could be a means to an end,” a way to get ahead and leave street life behind for good.
“Having a rap sheet was a concern for Year Up — but not a disqualifier,” says Narcisse, who trained in IT knowing that finance wasn’t an option, owing to his record. Ironically, his first internship was with a leading Boston law firm.
At Ariad, a 230-employee firm headquartered near MIT, Narcisse handles IT support calls and troubleshoots wherever needed. He’d like to build and run a recording studio one day — rap music is another of his passions — but says family life and work take precedence. “I have two little girls, and I want to be home to raise them.”
Polanco’s father, a Boston court officer, died suddenly when she was 13. One of her brothers and a close friend were murder victims. Those losses hit her hard, she says. After graduating from Brockton’s Cardinal Spellman High School, Polanco enrolled in Roxbury Community College but left before earning a degree, having worked two jobs to help pay tuition.
“I always kept my balance, but it was tough sometimes,” she says. She heard about Year Up through cousins who were graduates. Accepted into September 2010’s incoming class, she took the investment operations track, despite knowing nothing about finance beyond owning a credit card.
“It was like learning a foreign language,” Polanco recalls with a smile. “Mutual funds. Personal finance. How to rate stocks. Margins, margin calls. But I did learn.”
Quickly, too. Polanco’s supervisor at Bank of New York Mellon, Angeila Hughes, calls her talents and work ethic exceptional.
“Her work qualities are exactly what I’d look for, and that’s taken some people here by surprise,” says Hughes. Most hires have at least a bachelor’s degree, she notes. But with four of her department’s 42 members being Year Up grads, and others scattered throughout the company, the program’s ability to develop talent has been proven.
Polanco, now taking business courses at Cambridge College, says many friends who’ve finished college are now “in major debt” and job hunting, without much luck.
“A lot of companies think you’re worthless without a college degree,” she says. “Teach us those hard and soft skills, though, and everything’s possible.”
Williams’s family left the Dominican Republic for Boston in 2000. He spoke no English. At Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, he thought about training to become a carpenter. Meanwhile, he worked for a carpet-cleaning company and drug-store chain. What really interested him, though, was computers.
Friends encouraged him to check out Year Up. Williams was accepted in March 2011 — and quickly found how strict the program’s standards are. Enrollees begin their training with a point total: Any infraction, from chewing gum to showing up late, costs them points. Too many deductions, and you’re out.
“It’s an everyday battle,” Williams says. “But you can tell who’s going to make it and who’s not.” A dozen classmates failed to graduate, he says, while the rest formed a mutual support team to get one another going.
At Consigli, Williams works as a help-desk technician, assisting fellow employees with computer, software, or smartphone problems at one of the firm’s construction sites. Video editing is one aspect of his job he hopes to expand upon.
Frustrated with her curriculum and lack of support from professors, burdened by college debt and admittedly poor at time management, Walter, whose parents are Honduran, dropped out of UMass-Boston after three semesters before applying to Year Up in September 2010. A Latin Academy grad, Walter grew up in Dorchester and heard about the program through a friend.
“I needed a lot of support, a lot of guidance, and they gave it,” says Walter. “But at the end of the day, I made my own choices.”
One career-changing choice involved switching from IT to finance and discovering her nascent math skills. Following an internship at JP Morgan, Walter joined State Street last year and has risen to senior fund accountant. As she writes in a Year Up website profile, she’s grown steadily more comfortable in managing multiple accounts. “Reviewing long term buys and sells to make sure they don’t exceed tolerance? Easy. Creating market to market reports to make sure that exchange rates have been applied. I can do that now.”
As part of Year Up’s Mentor Corps, she also helps younger inner-city kids in need of support, much as she once was.
“We get kids struggling to stay on the right path,” says Walter. “Whether they go to college or not, I want to help them grow.”