Metro

Nonprofit seeks to fill skills gap of low-income high school graduates

Alejandro Martinez and his fellow students learn business and personal skills at Year Up in Boston.
Lane Turner/Globe Staff
Alejandro Martinez and his fellow students learn business and personal skills at Year Up in Boston.

Eye contact was made with each visitor, who was greeted with a firm handshake. Pleasantries were exchanged, with a smidgeon of small talk.

But there was also direction and discipline for those Year Up students whose professional attire was deemed a bit too trendy for the buttoned-down business world. It’s these types of behaviors and approaches that the job-training program seeks to teach thousands of disconnected youth.

“Those shoes are borderline, sir,” said Michael Goldstein, Year Up’s senior director of growth initiatives, to a sharply dressed young man, wearing black suede shoes with tan soles and white stitching.

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Later, Goldstein explained: “There is this idea that a professional is made. It’s a learned skill. Some people learn it from their uncle. Some people learn it from their mother.”

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Some people learn it here, within the nine-story building near Post Office Square that houses Year Up’s office and classrooms. In many ways, what happens at Year Up is the practical application of the lofty talk heard along the campaign trail about putting people to work and closing the skills gap.

“We are basically a simple broker between incredible, hungry, ambitious young people looking for opportunity and incredible successful companies looking for talent,” Goldstein said about the national group based in Boston.

The nonprofit offers low-income 18- to 24-year-olds professional development training, corporate internships, college credit, and a stipend.

Millions of young people – about 11,000 in Boston alone – are out of school and out of work, cut off from the mainstream economy as American industry clamors for workers with more than a high school diploma but not necessarily a four-year degree.

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And jobs and the economy have emerged as key policy issues in the race for the White House and the fight for Congress.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has a five-point “workforce skills and job training” agenda that includes tax credits for businesses that hire apprentices. Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, whose campaign is mostly driven by economic anxiety caused by a changing economy, regularly decries the number of Americans cut out of the labor force.

And it has become part of the broader GOP agenda, with House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the nation’s highest-ranking Republican, going on a nationwide tour of anti-poverty programs as he attempts to reframe and refocus an election that many believe has gone off the rails and skewed far from governing philosophies.

Ryan visited Year Up’s Boston headquarters on Oct. 4. Christian Caceres of Lynn said he wanted to share his story with Ryan because doing so would be an indication of progress and a reward for his hard work and sacrifice.

He wasn’t selected and was crushed, fearing he wasn’t meeting expectations. Those worries faded the next day when he was chosen to tell his story to guests during a tour.

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Caceres graduated from Lynn Classical High School in the spring but only after struggling.

‘We are basically a simple broker between incredible, hungry, ambitious young people ... and incredible successful companies.’

“I wasn’t exactly, like, a school student,” he said. His high school guidance counselor pulled him aside and told him about Year Up, saying to him it was a highly competitive program. Of the 2,290 applicants last year, only 252 were accepted, a Year Up official said.

But, his guidance counselor told him, there would be a huge payoff if he got into it, and she gave him an example of a student who was once like him.

“She kind of compared us, saying ‘he’s smart but he didn’t always love school and perform as good as he should have,’ ” Caceres said. “So, I always kept Year Up in mind.”

A friend, who was going through the program, sold him on it, and now he gets up every day about 6:40 a.m. to catch a bus from Lynn and arrive before 8:30 a.m. Class lasts until 3:30 p.m., then he’s back on a bus for the return trip home. And at nights and on weekends, he works another job selling cellphones.

Word of mouth is how people find Year Up, which opened in 2001 with 22 students and has since established itself in cities across the country, serving 13,000 students in 16 cities to date.

The goal is to give at-risk young people the tools necessary to avoid the minimum wage rut while earning college credits. The yearlong program is divided into two parts. During the first six months, students learn computer and business communication skills then specialize in finance, information technology, or Internet sales. A six-month, full-time internship working for a corporation follows.

At the end of their internships, students typically start jobs earning $18 an hour, or $36,000 annually. That’s the situation Yunior Crispin VALDEZ finds himself at CarGurus, the car-buying website where he interned during the second phase of the program. He’s on track to earn about $65,000 in base salary and commission.

“The first thing I did was look up how much a sales person makes a year, and when I saw the numbers I was, like, ‘oh, wow!’” said the 18-year-old, who was one of 11 students in the pilot Internet sales track.

Still, he was doubtful. It was something new – he was used to face-to-face sales, not working the phones – and the program was a bit disorganized at first, he said.

But he thrived, and so did the new program, which not only teaches the art of sales but also the technology behind the practice. Eight of the 11 students in the pilot program were offered jobs at the companies were they interned, Goldstein said.

“The challenge we faced is they no longer wanted 11, they wanted 20 and then they wanted 40,” he said. “Success begot success.”

But there’s not enough space to continue expanding the program at the nine-story Milk Street headquarters, so Year Up has entered into novel partnerships with Roxbury Community College and State Street. Starting in March, students in Year Up’s Internet Sales tract will be dual enrolled in the community college. It is the first time the community college has partnered with a community organization.

And ON MONDAY, students will begin taking classes at State Street’s Quincy facility.

“So we’re going from 400 students at the beginning of this year to 500 at the end of this year to 600 at the end of next year,” Goldstein said.

Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.