About 4 years ago

01/19/2016 - The Opportunity Jobs Academy: Helping Mayors and Cities Solve Problems

By:  Carson Chandler

At our firm, some of the most often-repeated advice to clients is to find ways to help mayors and cities solve problems.

The logic behind this mantra is about changing the narrative and perception around hourly employers (particularly those in the restaurant, retail and hospitality industries) by demonstrating how the jobs and the associated “ladder of opportunity” those employers create, in turn, generates real world benefits to our communities.

I’m generalizing here, but the only time these kinds of companies tend to engage with local officials is when those companies need something. You know: planning and zoning issues, wage and benefit policy or other in-the-moment business model issues.

This is odd. Because, despite the prevalence of these companies in our communities, despite the unmatched familiarity citizens have with these brands, it’s rare that these employers pro-actively seek out ways to use what they do best to bring positive attention to their company or help solve problems. I’m not talking about their foundations and non-profit giving. Hourly employers are some of the most charitable companies around. I’m talking about leveraging actual elements of their business to help solve problems.

This is unfortunate, because the reality is that hourly employers have a great story to tell about the jobs and opportunity they generate in our communities. Even more important, they possess unique and powerful mechanisms to help local officials start to overcome some of the biggest challenges our cities face.

A great example of what I’m talking about can be found in a pilot project we are involved with in our home city of Orlando called the Opportunity Jobs Academy, or OJA for short.

The idea for OJA came from a conversation with the leader of the City of Orlando’s program for at-risk middle school students. His program had made huge strides in increasing test scores, providing access to tutoring and enrichment opportunities and lowering the juvenile crime rate among this particularly vulnerable student population.

But, the program had also run into a challenge about what to do after its students graduated from middle school. “We’ve proven that our afterschool programming prevents students from making negative choices,” he said. “But, what comes next? What can we do for these students once they get into high school to help them continue to avoid negative influences and make good life choices?”

Jobs – was the easy, obvious answer. These kids from challenging backgrounds needed a positive way to spend their time outside of the classroom. They needed the opportunity to work and earn money. And, they needed the structure and responsibility that a job offers, along with the host of other benefits that come with steady employment.

Except, the situation in Orlando (and in communities everywhere for that matter) was far more complicated than just connecting young people with entry-level employers. The reality was that with this particular student population, simply playing matchmaker wasn’t going to be enough. Not even close.

In some cases, these students were slightly too young to take a first job. Most had very little understanding about what jobs might be available to them even in their own neighborhoods, or how to apply for those jobs. The biggest challenge, though, was that these students simply didn’t possess the skillset needed to truly succeed in a job, even if they were to secure one. The bottom line: we had a group of students that desperately needed the kinds of benefits that are embedded in an entry-level job, but they weren’t in a position to actually get those jobs.

They needed a kind of “bridge” to opportunity.

Understanding this dynamic, we set out to do something really different, something we hoped would be transformative for these students and something that was very likely going to challenge the brands we work with.

If these kids couldn’t access jobs and opportunity on their own, then we were going to deliver those things to them. Our vision was to create a comprehensive program that would educate these kids about the kinds of jobs that exist in their communities; and that would also give them the skills necessary to apply for and succeed in those jobs.

The most important part, the absolute key to our idea, was that our students would learn these skills, in part, from mentors who had leveraged those sorts of jobs and opportunities themselves, and who often came from (and still work in) the same communities as the students.

We started by making what was, by all accounts, an odd request of some of our clients. We wanted their help with a project, but we weren’t asking for money at the outset. We needed people… the right people.

We asked them to identify managers, assistant managers, and other professionals who were interested in mentoring to teens and whose stories, by and large, mirrored that of our potential students. We wanted a wide spectrum of both backgrounds and job responsibilities within our partner companies. Our goal, again, was that the students would learn first-hand from people in their own communities about how to prepare for and succeed in a job. We also wanted to make sure students learned how these mentors had leveraged an entry-level job into a career or a pathway to college or other opportunities.

Next, we worked with our non-profit partner and brought in experts to help build out a different kind of curriculum. We built out an 8-week course that focused on:

  • Time management and goal setting
  • Developing workplace skills, problem solving and decision-making
  • Preparing for a job interview, including everything from building a resume to role-playing interviews
  • Financial literacy, including how to open and use a checking and savings account and the basics of budgeting
  • Professional communication, including conflict resolution and email/social media etiquette

The course also included a slate of guest speakers from different retail, restaurant and hospitality brands and tours at restaurant and retail locations so that students could learn how these businesses operated. Brands such as Wendy’s, Firehouse Subs, Marriott and Tijuana Flats stepped up to provide mentors. In a lot of cases they also stepped out of their comfort zones, working beyond the rigorous demands of their daily operational focus to ensure we had enough mentors for our students.

It wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t perfect.   But, with a lot of help from our partner companies and the leadership of Orlando’s After School All Stars program, we were able to turn this idea into reality. Earlier this summer, the first class of the Opportunity Jobs Academy graduated, earning praise from some of our local leaders and even a little bit of media attention.

Fast forward to the present, and the Opportunity Jobs Academy is about to start its third class of more than 20 students. We’re gearing up to replicate the program in additional cities around the country. With every class, we are making our program that much better, adding mentors, new brands and new pieces of curriculum to empower our students.

By marrying an existing need in our community with what hourly employers do best, creating a pathway for opportunity, we believe we’ve built a one-of-a-kind mechanism to help give young people the tools to succeed and to help local leaders solve problems.

If you represent an hourly employer and would like to get involved with OJA, or if you’d just like to learn more about what we’re doing, please don’t hesitate to contact us.

We think we’re on the verge of something really special. And, we’d love to partner with you to continue to make it happen.