Filed Under:  Education, Local, News

Program allows students to earn and learn

29th December 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Kari Dequine Harden
Contributing Writer

David Brown walked through the power plant at Tulane University, explaining the various functions of the noisy machines at the heart of the campus’ operations.

Brown, 20, described the role of the two massive cooling tanks and pointed to the round yellow gauges that require constant monitoring. He talked about the campus’ water source – a well, buried thousands of feet underground, and the machinery required to pump it through the pipes.

Brown said he answered a call that morning to fix an air conditioning problem in a classroom.

Tall, articulate, and knowledgeable, it seemed as if Brown had been working in the power plant for three years. But he’d been on the job for just three months, and it wasn’t very long ago that Brown’s career prospects looked substantially different.

He was doing his best, working night shifts at Wal-Mart for minimum wage and taking care of his baby during the day while his girlfriend worked the day shift.

Brown describes his nine-month-old son as “very energetic.”

At his previous job, he felt trapped in a low wage job with little room for growth, or opportunities to get ahead. Now Brown has his sites set on a degree in engineering.

Today, he spends 20 hours of his week working at $15/hour in the power plant and 20 hours at school.

His former high school math teacher, Matthew Feigenbaum, described Brown as an extremely bright young man with a dedicated work ethic. Feigenbaum also wanted to see a wider door of opportunity opened for Brown.

That door came in the form of the “Earn and Learn Career Pathways Program,” launched in September by the Cowen Institute at Tulane University. The goal of the program is to connect “disconnected” youth to high-wage, high-growth career paths in a way that benefits both the youth and the needs of the business community.

Feigenbaum is now a senior program manager at the Earn and Learn Program.

The yearlong program provides support and structure to young people so that they can earn a living wage and get work experience while advancing their education. After gaining work experience, mentorship, soft skills training, and an associates degree or industry certification, the program then assists the apprentices with finding a full-time job or continuing their education.

Brandy Williams, another senior program manager, emphasizes the distinct “dual customer” approach: designed to meet the needs of both the “Opportunity Youth,” and the local business community.

“Opportunity youth” or “disconnected youth,” refers to a demographic of young people ages 16-24 that has been one focus of research at the Cowen Institute.

In May, the Cowen Institute released a report titled “High School Disconnection: Insights from the Inside.”

The report focused on “disconnected youth” – young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are “disconnected from the very systems meant to prepare them for their futures.” This group, with 6.7 million identified nationwide, is also referred to as “Opportunity Youth,” “due to their potential to work, learn, and achieve.”

The report designated approximately 14,000 young people in New Orleans as “disconnected.” The population in New Orleans is higher than the state and the national average, Brandi said, with about one of five youth considered “disconnected.”

In a 2012 report, the Cowen Institute found that “Of New Orleans youth aged 18-24, 23 percent were not attending school, not working, and had no degree beyond high school.”

The report also found that of teens aged 16-19, 15 percent were not attending school or working.

School district officials recently announced that for the 2012-2013 school year, 28 percent of high schoolers missed more than 10 percent of school.

Based on his teaching experience, Feigenbaum identifies the problem of “disconnected youth,” as a missing piece in education, and one he believes the “earn and learn” program addresses.

But Feigenbaum is also quick to point out that the program is not a charity. “We provide sustainable pathways to careers for opportunity youth and provide quality employees for employers in need,” he said.

Addressing the disconnected youth also has a benefit to society as a whole. According to the Cowen report, in the United States in 2011, Opportunity Youth cost taxpayers approximately $93 billion in lost tax revenues due to a lack of productive workers and an increase in social services. In the New Orleans metro area in 2011, the costs measured approximately $195 million.

Not far from the power plant at the campus’ center for video operation, Lemarque Pooler sits with laptop. The computer is dwarfed by the former athlete’s large frame.

From shooting to editing, Pooler lights up as he talks about the projects he’s accomplished just in the past few months as he learns about sports videography.

Pooler was a football player before an injury ended that career prospect.

“The biggest camera I’d worked with was with my iPhone,” he said.

It was a mystery to him how the camera on TV never left the ball. Now Pooler is behind one of those cameras following the ball, and he’s really good at it.

He said it took him a couple of weeks on the sideline to get the hang of it.

Pooler’s supervisor, Brian Lewis, put on a highlight reel on the large computer screen that Pooler made, from the shooting to editing and picking music.

Brian said Pooler caught on very quick, and has become an asset to the department, especially during busy season.

For the highlight reel Pooler said he chose about 15 clips out of 150.

“I never knew what I wanted to do, or see a clear goal, until I got here,” Pooler said.

A few buildings away at the IT center, Rhyan Burt-Gautreaux works in network support.

He spends his time helping students and faculty with computer and technical questions, and also helps set up computer systems and is good at the customer service element.

Burt-Gautreaux admits he didn’t take his education very seriously in high school. Now he’s on his way to a career in the high-demand IT field. And he said he enjoys the customer service side of it as well.

Sheldon Jones, Burt-Gautreaux’s supervisor and Tulane’s associate director of technical support and network operations center, said that thus far the Earn and Learn Program has been a positive addition to his department.

“It’s not a handout,” Jones said. “They have to do what they need to do. It’s mutually advantageous to both groups.

Brown, Pooler, and Burt-Gautreaux are three of 18 in the program’s first class of “apprentices.”

They get valuable on-site work experience, as well as a mentorship environment where it’s okay to make mistakes. But with that room comes high accountability to learn from those mistakes, and routine check-ins, evaluations, and feedback from Feigenbaum and Williams.

It’s also a chance to build on a skill set from the beginning, and in a relatively short period of time.

And for the employers, it’s a low-stake opportunity for some of their employees to mentor and train others.

The apprentices work in a variety of jobs on the Uptown campus as well as at the university’s more than 200 buildings across the city.

One apprentice drove by on a facilities maintenance golf cart, while another laid new carpet in an office. The program is designed to meet the interests and abilities of the apprentices, with a focus on creative digital media and skilled crafts.

Williams said they hope to double the number of apprentices next year, and Feigenbaum said they are also looking to expand the career pathways.

The program relies on collaboration and partnerships, Williams said – a primary on being with Delgado Community College, where the apprentices pursue associate’s degrees or industry certifications.

The program also helps their apprentices with things like books, transportation, and workplace clothes, costs that, added up, can become financial barriers.

In addition to local community groups and nonprofits, Earn and Learn is a partner of local industry, designed “with a market-driven approach.”

With Tulane University holding the title of the city’s largest employer, Williams said that hosting the program on campus is a “good fit,” and an opportunity to invest resources locally as opposed to recruiting workers from out of state.

The program also focuses heavily on soft skills—things such as resume building, time management, financial management, goal setting, and interview skills. They learn how to pitch themselves, Williams said, and through the process also grow confidence.

Williams stresses that the learning side of the program is always stressed as a priority.

The privately run university, supported by a handful of generous grants, fund the program. Delgado receives grant money for tuition costs, and employers pay 10 percent of the apprentices’ salaries.

Feigenbaum said the goal is to increase the role of employers in the future to ensure sustainability. The hope is for employers to increasingly see their own benefits for participating in the program.

For others who are struggling to find a way up, Brown’s advice is to “Keep pushing forward and not give up on yourself.”

Brown said that being around his 9-month-old son, who is currently wreaking havoc on the lower half of the Christmas tree, “makes me know I want to be a better person,” he said.

Feigenbaum said that Pooler has emerged as a leader. Pooler said he’s good at raising the morale of his coworkers and fellow students, and said he’d love to continue working at Tulane. Prior to entering the program, Pooler said he bounced around from job to job and “only planned for the next day — not the future.”

“We are thrilled to partner with Tulane on this exciting initiative,” said Delgado Program Manager Jasper Frank in a news release. “The program provides incredible, relevant experience which is a built-in incentive for participants to persist through the program. This a program that has the potential to lead not only to a job, but a career.”

This article originally published in the December 29, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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