Two young people with completely different upbringings were certain of two things – nobody would help them and the future was bleak.
One was homeless after leaving the foster care system.
“Life is heartbreaking sometimes,” said 23-year-old Shane Holmes. “What are you supposed to do when no one wants to give you a chance, no matter how hard you try?”
The other, who had dropped out of school at the age of 15, was struggling to hold a steady job.
“My motto used to be prepare for the worst and don’t get your hopes up. I had my guard up for sure,” said Vernita Page, now 20.
Shane and Vernita were among the estimated 6.7 million Americans between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor working – one of the fastest growing populations in the country. In the past, young people in those circumstances were called “at-risk youth,” but today they’re considered America’s “opportunity youth,” according to a leading advocate for engaging young adults.
“We, as a nation, have a great opportunity to invest in these young people,” said Dorothy Stoneman, Founder and CEO of YouthBuild USA, which has a 36-year track record of preparing more than 130,000 young people around the country with work and life skills. “There is tremendous intelligence locked up in this group of people. Untapped, positive energy is unleashed when they feel respected, cared about and guided toward setting their own goals and achieving them.”
For the past 10 years, Starbucks and the Schultz Family Foundation have witnessed the unleashing of that positive energy through a barista skills training program for opportunity youth - started by two Seattle non-profits - YouthCare and FareStart. Nearly 500 young adults have graduated, with 70% securing jobs in the retail and customer service sectors.
Now, Starbucks, the Schultz Family Foundation and YouthBuild USA have launched the Retail Excellence Training Program. This national program gives students an opportunity to learn customer service skills - based on the same training Starbucks store partners (employees) receive - through classroom and on-the-job experience in retail or café settings. In addition to Seattle, it is available in Gulfport, Mississippi and Harlem, New York at YouthBuild sites in those communities. Around 170 students are set to graduate this year.
Scaling up from Seattle
In 1996, Sheri and Howard Schultz, chairman, president and ceo of Starbucks, established the Schultz Family Foundation. From her leadership role as president of the foundation, Sheri has been integrally involved with the barista training program.
YouthCare provided life skills coaching, resume and job search support and connections to other services. FareStart offered classroom training in food prep and on-the-job training at its café. Starbucks joined the non-profits in supporting the program, and the impact grew. While some graduates found jobs with Starbucks, others secured opportunities with retailers, coffee shops and small businesses.
Several years ago Schultz met Dorothy Stoneman, a pioneer in the movement to connect disengaged young adults with real and inspiring opportunities. Stoneman had built a network of more than 260 YouthBuild programs around the country in partnership with local non-profits (including YouthCare in Seattle) and with the U.S. Department of Labor that funds local YouthBuild programs.
Each YouthBuild program offers low-income people ages 16 to 24 the opportunity to work toward their GED or high school diploma while learning job skills by building affordable housing in their communities. In recent years additional career tracks have been made available in health care and technology. Upon exiting the program, graduates are placed in college, jobs, or both.
The Retail Excellence Training Program will provide additional opportunities for young adults at an expanding number of YouthBuild program sites including CLIMB in Gulfport, Mississippi and Abyssinian Development Corporation in Harlem, New York.
Over the course of 8 to 10 weeks, each student completes 80 hours of technical retail and barista skills training and 80 hours in a customer-service role. Upon completion of the program the young graduates receive four semester hours, accredited by the American Council on Education, and a paycheck for their time. They also receive assistance with their job search, applications, interview preparation and placement.
“Fundamentally we – along with Starbucks and the Schultz Family Foundation – believe in empowering young people to find their internal strength to overcome the odds,” said Stoneman. “We’re helping individuals who in turn are helping their families and communities.”
'On the Road to Greatness'
Shane Holmes was convinced adults didn’t care about him.
He bounced from one foster home to another as a child and was homeless as a teenager. Ducking into a neon-green Seattle shelter one day, he met YouthCare counselors who encouraged him to get his GED in 2010. More recently, they helped him gain job skills through the Retail Excellence Training Program. Holmes received his certificate on September 5, 2014.
“I’ve learned a lot about how to interact with customers to make sure they’re getting what they want, even if they’re not expressing a need,” Holmes said. “As long as I’m upbeat and trying to put the customer first, I find things work out pretty well.”
Along with specific barista skills, Holmes said the program gave him experience working with teams.
Asked about his future, Holmes smiled, nodded and said, “I have a lot of life goals now.” He wants to study botany and eventually buy a small acreage in Eastern Washington to become “fully self-sustained.”
Vernita Page said feels good about her career possibilities for the first time in five years. She also graduated from the program and recently accepted a position serving customers at a Starbucks kiosk in a local grocery store.
“Over these past few weeks, I realized people are trying to help me,” she said. “I’ve learned skills and more importantly I’ve discovered how to trust others. I’m not where I want to be yet, but I’m on the road to greatness.”
Five fellow students joined Vernita and Shane as they demonstrated their skills to family and friends before graduating in Seattle. Another group recently advanced in Mississippi and a third class will graduate in New York on Thursday, September 18.
A Clear Business Imperative
The Retail Excellence Training Program is one example of public-private partnerships Starbucks is fostering to create pathways to opportunity for young people – both within the company and in local communities. Another is the Starbucks College Achievement Plan to help thousands of partners finish their college degrees through Arizona State University.
“There’s an increasing recognition that with the right skills and training, these young people could be of huge value to our economy,” said Blair Taylor, executive vice president and chief community officer for Starbucks. “If businesses like ours are to keep growing, we need our young people to be a vibrant part of the economy. It’s our role to help build that onramp to opportunity.”