Job fair aims to get 100,000 'disconnected' youth jobs

Putting Chicago's kids back to work
Putting Chicago's kids back to work

All they need is a shot.

More than 3,000 young adults from disadvantaged backgrounds are gathering in Chicago today for the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative's debut job fair. Recruiters from 29 companies, including Taco Bell, Hyatt (H), and Macy's (M), will be looking to fill hundreds of local positions.

Some of the young adults, who range in age from 16 to 24, will have one-on-one interviews with recruiters, while all participants will be able to attend workshops on resume writing, interview skills and attending college.

Spearheaded by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, the initiative aims to provide 100,000 young adults who are neither working nor in school with internships, training programs, part-time or full-time jobs by 2018. It will hold similar job fairs throughout the country in the future.

Many young adults in the Windy City face barriers to landing and holding onto jobs. They may not know how to craft a resume that sells their skills, dress for an interview or even what job openings are available, said Andrea Vaughn, associate director for employer engagement in Chicago for Year Up, a training and internship program for low-income young adults.

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For instance, they may not realize that working at Burger King allows them to say they are dependable and know how to handle customers on their resume, she said. Or that neon nail polish isn't appropriate in professional settings.

"The hope is that it's a stepping stone," said Vaughn, who is sending several recent Year Up alumni to look for positions.

That's Keiana Simpson's hope, too. Simpson, who is studying engineering at Olive-Harvey College, has an interview for a job as a packer with LBP Manufacturing, a packaging company.

"I can work my way up to being an engineering or quality technician," said Simpson, 20, who grew up on Chicago's South Side.

Starbucks (SBUX) launched the effort to equip these disconnected youth with the chance to meet employers and develop basic on-the-job skills -- handling customers, following a schedule, working with a boss and colleagues. While some of the jobs are entry level in fast food and retail, the goal is to get these young Americans in the workforce.

"The first job is the spark. It gets someone on the right path," said Linda Mills, a Starbucks spokeswoman. "It prepares you for the next job after that."

The job fair is also a chance for companies to tap into a source of employees that are often overlooked.

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"An event like this opens up opportunities and access to a wide range of folks who are talented but cut off," said Vaughn.

That's one of the reasons Pizza Hut (YUM) is there, said Amy Messersmith, the company's chief people officer. Also, the chain is looking to learn from participants how to better reach young prospects like them and to hear from other companies about their mentoring and training programs.

Pizza Hut said it will extend up to 150 job offers at its area locations. The new hires will join Pizza Hut's development programs, which include being paired with a more senior employee, said Messersmith, noting that entry level staffers have moved up the ladder and have even become franchise owners.

Chicago-based Hyatt Hotels, meanwhile, is looking to fill a number of full- and part-time positions, from housekeepers to restaurant servers, said Robb Webb, chief human resources officer. There is opportunity to rise within the hotel chain, he said, pointing to Maketh Mabior, who fled his native Sudan as a child, started his career with Hyatt as a dishwasher and ascended to a manager position in the kitchen at the Park Hyatt Chicago.

It only took a few hours at the job fair for Neuman Savage, 22, to land a barista job at Starbucks.

She had been searching for work since she returned to Chicago in May after an internship at Disney World. She had submitted a lot of applications online, but they hadn't yielded anything. Now that she has her foot in the door at Starbucks, she hopes to work her way up to supervisor and, eventually, into Starbucks' advertising or social media departments.

"I'll be making money finally and start my path back to school," said Savage, who will make $10 an hour, Chicago's minimum wage. "It sets me up for better opportunities."

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While the chance to land a position is important, the fair is about more than that, said Veronica Herrero, senior director at One Million Degrees, which works with low-income community college students. About a dozen of the group's participants have interviews scheduled, but another dozen are going for the professional development sessions. She hopes they all get to network with employers and meet other young adults with similar aspirations.

"It's not just about getting a job," said Herrero. "It's a feeling of specialness ... [that] everyone is rooting for me."

For Angela Lee, who is looking for work after graduating from the Year Up program in January, the job fair is a chance to show recruiters she is motivated, determined and confident. She's hoping to have interviews with Nordstrom and CVS, and is talking to other employers at the fair as well.

"It gives us a chance to show our skills," said Lee, 22, who interned in AkzoNobel's information technology department through Year Up. "Even though we aren't four-year degree holders, we can work just like them."

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