Pilot program in Baltimore uses mentoring to open up job opportunities

Written by Jayne Miller, WBAL-TV11

Baltimore is struggling to deal with crime committed by youth. Advocates said one answer is to get more young people engaged through jobs and mentoring.

But is it easier said than done?

For the first time, 16-year-old Kendrick Senior had a job this summer. It was nothing glamorous — he has been working as a dishwasher at the restaurant Ekiben in Fells Point — but he has learned much more than scrubbing pots and pans.

“I have learned how not to give up, and how to push through things, and teamwork and communication,” Senior said.

The owner of Ekiben and Senior’s employer, Steve Chu, is also a mentor. Senior and Chu are part of a pilot program within YouthWorks, the summer jobs program in Baltimore.

What’s different about the pilot program is that there are two-dozen youth who are provided a caseworker with whom they meet weekly to help navigate problems and hold them accountable. They go through “soft skills training,” a magic phrase in workforce development intended to teach youth how to show up on time, how to provide customer service and other requirements of working.

“There is a disconnect between employers and young people because of the stigma about young people, especially young people of color, working in the restaurant industry, in any industry really, saying they’re lazy, they won’t show up on time, they don’t have any work ethic,” said Ifetayo Kitwala, 18, who has worked for YouthWorks the last four years.

Baltimore City Councilman Zeke Cohen helped organize the pilot program by connecting the city, business leaders and funders. The goal is to open up certain the hospitality and construction industries to youth employment and to provide options for youth.

“This is how we stop the violence. We invest in a meaningful way into our young people. We provide them an avenue into the workforce. We give them support. We give them love,” Cohen said. “This is what is going to stop the violence, and it’s not a long term. It’s right now.”

Cohen is trying to use the pilot program to argue for more extensive youth employment and mentoring participants, as YouthWorks is only a summer program.

“When we do workforce development, we can’t do it cheap. We have to do it right,” Cohen said.

“Everybody needs mentors, whether they’re parents, teachers, employers or a co-worker. Everyone needs that person to steer them back in the right direction,” Chu said.

Senior will head back to high school in a few weeks with some money in his pocket and work experience under his belt.

Kitwala is off to her first year of college with four summers of work experience on her resume.

Senior and Kitwala are among 8,300 Baltimore youth who are employed this summer, but there were 2,200 more who applied, but were not offered a job.

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