Second chances: Businesses join to help break down barriers to employment

By Linda Dahlstrom / Starbucks Newsroom

All the kids were afraid of the dark, remembers Xavier McElrath-Bey.

During the long nights when the power was shut off at the south Chicago apartment he shared with his family growing up, they’d try to beat back the dark with candles or sometimes with an extension cord to borrow electricity from a friendly neighbor. But when it was truly dark, that’s when the rats and the roaches would come out. That’s when they were most afraid.

His stepfather worked long hours at the factory, but often there wasn’t enough money for things like power, gas or other necessities.

“We often went to the homeless shelter to get food,” he remembers.

By the time he was 6, he was placed in foster care where he remained for two years. At 11, he was accidentally shot in the face by a friend playing with a gun, permanently damaging the vision in his left eye. That same year, he joined a gang, looking for the sense of family that he didn’t find in his home, which was rocked by abuse, alcoholism and mental illness. By age 13, he had been arrested 19 times on weapons charges, armed robberies – and convicted of seven, including a gang-related first degree murder. He was sentenced for 25 years but was paroled at the age of 26. When he got out, he was released into the cold of November in Chicago with his only possessions in a duffle bag, nowhere to go and no prospects for employment.

In prison, wracked by remorse, he had become determined to spend his life helping youth at risk and preventing violence – an “eternal apology” to Pedro Martinez, the victim of his crime.

Now, free, what he needed – and was about to get – was a second chance that would ultimately profoundly change not only his life, but the lives of many others.

Today (Sept. 20), McElrath-Bey (pictured above), who is now 41, will be sharing his story and connecting with youth and young adults at the Opportunity Fair in Washington D.C. There at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, where nearly 4,000 people between the ages of 16 and 24 who aren’t currently employed or in school – known as Opportunity Youth – will be able to get help with their resumes, learn interviewing tips and practice tying a tie. They will have the chance to interview with one of the 36 employers who will be represented, including Five Guys, Walmart, Starbucks, HMSHost, Hilton, FedEx and many others. Hundreds at the fair are expected to be offered jobs on the spot.

This is the sixth Opportunity Fair since Starbucks committed in 2015 to hiring 10,000 Opportunity Youth and partnered with more than 50 other companies to launch the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative. Since then, Starbucks has hired more than 40,000 Opportunity Youth, and announced earlier this year a new goal of hiring 100,000 by 2020. The coalition collectively has a goal of hiring 1 million by 2021.

“We do this because we see the value in the young people we are hiring and the goodness they bring to our business,” said David Oclander, director of global social impact at Starbucks who oversees the company’s Opportunity Youth hiring program. "Employers and volunteers at the fair leave just as changed as the youth who are hired. They leave with a sense of purpose and service that they will carry with them forever. It also gives many of us hope for the future."

An estimated 4.9 million young people between 16 and 24 aren’t in school or working and face systemic barriers to economic opportunity. In Washington D.C., about 10 percent of young adults don’t have a job, according to Measure of America, a report by the Social Science Research Council.

Many may be facing obstacles that can seem insurmountable, said Oclander. When participants register for the Opportunity Fair, they are asked what the biggest barriers are to them getting or keeping a job. Among the top ones listed are a lack of education or literacy, health care issues among family members, transportation and not having a stable place to live.

Others may not even know how to apply for a job or create a resume. Some, like McElrath-Bey, may have criminal records that have made it hard to find employment. Many of the companies who are part of the Opportunity Youth Coalition have a tradition of finding ways to help lower the barriers so that those who want a job can have one. Oclander said a goal for the D.C. Opportunity fair is for employers to walk away having learned they can improve their hiring retention of Opportunity Youth, as well as a challenge to change one thing in the next 90 days to gain momentum in the improvement of hiring and retention practices.

Meeting people where they are

Susan Seubert, vice president of human resources for coalition partner HMSHost, said she meets people at Opportunity Fairs who have never really had someone who believed in them and were willing to give them a chance.

Once they are hired by HMSHost, the company pairs them with a buddy who can help them navigate the world of work. “It’s someone who came in before them and can pave the way. Someone they can go to who is not their managers where they can say ‘Hey, how do I get the schedule I’m looking for?’ or ‘My child is sick and I can’t come into work and what do I do?’”

Many of us take it for granted that if we are sick, we simply let our supervisors know, she said. But for someone who has never worked before or had a mentor, they may not know what to do, simply stop coming to work and end their employment.

The company also provides tuition reimbursement for employees who want to further their education and aims to support them in other ways. It’s a natural extension of a company devoted to serving others, she said. “We want to give people a chance. You never know where it could go,” she said.

Helping employees feel a sense of belonging always been important to Five Guys, said Sara Ortiz, vice president of human resources. The family-owned business, which will be hiring at the D.C. Opportunity Fair, has a long tradition of trying to help employees be successful, no matter what their circumstances at home may be, she said. When they heard about the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, it was perfectly in line with the company’s values.

“We want to make sure this is just first step in a career with Five Guys by helping them have the work hours they need, the flexibility they need and also have sites located near public transportation,” she said.

The company offers employees, even those working part-time in the stores, health insurance. And, those wanting to educate themselves can take advantage of free access to LinkedIn’s online learning program called Lynda. There, they can follow curriculums developed by Five Guys to help them improve their skills and enhance their job performance. They can also take courses for their own personal interest, ranging from personal finance to guitar. The company also offers free Rosetta Stone courses for those wanting to learn a language.

Starbucks also has educational programs in place for partners, such as access to tuition-free college degrees for eligible employees working 20 hours a week or more through the Starbucks College Achievement Plan and a partnership with Arizona State University. The Pathway to Admission program is available for those who need to rehabilitate their grades so they’ll be eligible for college.

“Having a job where you are valued and having compassionate leaders surround you is the major first step,” Oclander said. “Then when they come on board you are talking about removing barriers to access to health insurance, mental health support, educational options for employees and economic benefits such as stock and the CUP Fund (which provides grants for partners in crisis). We become this bridge.”

But it’s not just about doing right by others, it’s also good for business, Oclander said. What Starbucks has found is that rates of job retention among Opportunity Youth are about the same as other Starbucks partners, he said. For those who enroll in the educational opportunities, it’s much higher.

Ortiz of Five Guys said those the company has hired at past Opportunity Fairs have been exemplary. “These kids have already put in a lot of work just to (get to the Opportunity Fair). Their commitment to wanting to work far surpasses the average candidate,” she said. “From day one we are seeing a commitment level that’s higher than what we typically see.”

'It gave me a sense of connection'

After McElrath-Bey, a speaker at today's fair, got out of prison, he desperately wanted to find a job. It was the key to his whole future, he knew. Behind bars, he had finished high school and even earned a bachelor’s degree. He hoped it would help him find work.

“In prison, I heard on television that if you got an education, you could get a job,” he said. But for him and others who have been in prison, a history of incarceration was “the Scarlet Letter we carry.”

For four months he applied for work, and was always turned down. He spent his days looking for a job and volunteering at the local YMCA, wanting to give back. One day he heard about an area Starbucks that was hiring. Defeated, he almost didn’t go in to apply, worrying it would just be a waste of his limited bus fare.

But the company, which doesn’t ask potential employees to disclose previous incarceration on an application, but rather does background checks and then decides on an individual basis, was convinced he was worth taking a chance on.

It changed the course of his life, he said. He began working as a barista, bonding with colleagues and customers and found a home he didn’t expect. “It gave me a sense of connection to society,” he said. “Up until that point I’d felt isolated and alone. I didn’t feel like I was worthy.”

While working at Starbucks he also earned his master’s degree in human services. Today, he is the senior advisor and national advocate of the Campaign for the Fair Sentencing of Youth. He also co-founded the Incarcerated Children’s Advocacy Network (ICAN).

His message is that “there is no such thing as throw-away people … everyone deserves an opportunity to grow, thrive, and fulfill their potential. Sadly, many think the only life available is what they’ve seen.” The Opportunity Youth Fairs are bringing hope and helping them see another way, he said.

Throughout the day, he said he hopes to see people walking away with a sense of accomplishment “and a feeling that the future is bright and whatever challenges they faced, a coalition of corporations was there to help guide them through”, he said. “It’s the American Dream. No matter what your challenges, you deserve this opportunity.”

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