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Job training programs in New Orleans
Deshon Leggett, 16, is determined to be a mechanic but will need some help getting there after he finishes his bike-shop apprenticeship. Credit: Courtesy of the Youth Empowerment Project

NEW ORLEANS — A decade before he walked through the door of the Work & Learn program in New Orleans, Deshon Leggett, 16, knew the kind of work that excited him.

When he was about 6, he began looking through his uncle’s toolbox whenever his bicycle pedals came loose or its chain popped off. At first, Leggett made repairs through a trial-and-error process. It grew into the skill that defines him: “I like fixing on stuff,” he says.

Soon after mastering the repair of his bicycle, Leggett was tapped as the family repairman. “If my little brothers had a flat, I’d take the tire off and patch it,” he said. Now, whenever his uncle tunes up a car, Leggett is the nephew who stands next to him, handing him tools and observing.

So earlier this year when he walked into the Work & Learn Center and saw a room full of bicycles, Leggett knew he’d found a perfect job match. The recently launched program, which is formally called the Trafigura Work & Learn Center, offers paid apprenticeships to struggling youth between the ages of 16 and 24. Participants take life-skills classes and work in a bicycle shop, making repairs and learning to deal with customers and use the cash register.

At the end of 12 weeks, apprentices might be provided with further job training or, if they are still in school, given help finding part-time jobs. The idea behind the program, borne out by research, is that teen job experiences of any sort lead to higher earnings and better job prospects later in life. The Youth Empowerment Project (YEP) started Work & Learn nearly two years ago as a way to better serve the at-risk youth on which the agency focuses.

While many of the new charter schools that have opened here since Hurricane Katrina try to serve this group by focusing almost exclusively on academics and preparing students for college, a small but growing number of local efforts like Work & Learn aim to expose students to technical skills they can apply in jobs almost immediately.

Related: How can we end inequality if parents say kids shouldn’t go to college?

In some ways, the programs hark back to vocational classes like wood shop, auto mechanics and cosmetology that were central to many high schools a few decades ago. But instead of preparing each student for a lifelong blue-collar career, the new programs feature a relatively unique mix of work training, education and practical skills.

21 percent — The number of black men who earn a college degree by their late twenties, compared with 40 percent of white men. In Louisiana, only 28 percent of high school students go on to complete at least an associate’s degree in college.

The initiatives are targeted at a particularly at-risk population: young black men. In July, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, provided validation of this mission by awarding a total of $2.7 million to a range of New Orleans programs that are eliminating barriers and improving achievement for young men and boys of color. (The W.K Kellogg Foundation is one of The Hechinger Report’s many funders.)

Over time, program directors say, they hope to build up the city’s startlingly low black male employment rate, which in 2011 stood at 48 percent. In comparison, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national rate that year was 58 percent; the national average for black men was roughly 53 percent, and the rate for white men was 65 percent. An Urban Institute report traces employment disparities to discrimination, poor educational opportunities, a dearth of jobs in black neighborhoods, and disproportionate arrest, conviction and sentencing rates.

While it will take generations to move a higher proportion of black males into jobs, the new training could have an almost immediate impact on younger men, especially so-called “opportunity youth” — 16- to 24-year-olds who are not working or in school. According to a report by Tulane University’s Cowen Institute, New Orleans has the third-highest rate of opportunity youth of the country’s 50 largest cities, while Louisiana has the highest rate in the nation. Nationally, young black men are twice as likely as whites to be neither working nor in school.

The new programs — run not only by non-profits like Work & Learn, but also by New Orleans’s housing authority and several New Orleans schools — reflect today’s constantly shifting job markets. As in traditional job-training programs, program staff strategize and sweat over helping applicants land entry-level, full-time positions. But unlike training programs of the past, no one tells today’s trainees that the career for which they train will look the same tomorrow or will even exist in a few years. Instead, instructors teach apprentices not only how to land that first job but to explore future options. The students learn that, even after they get a job, it’s often important to continue classes while they work, both as a way of moving up the career ladder and of adapting to industry changes and personal interests.

In addition to hands-on training in the bicycle shop, the Work & Learn program teaches its apprentices so-called “soft skills,” like how to dress for interviews and complete job applications, and when to call your boss to report that you’re running late for work. Melissa Sawyer, who started the Youth Empowerment Project more than a decade ago, said that too often would-be workers jinx their prospects before they even get in the door. She watches young men walking down Canal Street, a main commercial thoroughfare in New Orleans, putting in job applications with shirts untucked or dreadlocks that aren’t’t pulled back, seemingly superficial details that can be barriers to getting hired. “My heart sinks a little for them,” she said. “Because they are doing the right thing, but they lack fundamental soft skills.”

Leggett is a perfect fit for the Work & Learn program, not only because of his talents but also his challenges. After Hurricane Katrina, he missed about a year of class time, compounding his existing academic delays. At the age of 16, he has yet to begin ninth grade.

Yet he is determined to become a mechanic.

The concern for teens like Leggett is that they could end up fixing cars informally for friends instead of working as certified mechanics, said Petrice Sams-Abiodun, who leads the Lindy Boggs National Center for Community Literacy at New Orleans’ Loyola University. “We have so many shade-tree mechanics, brothers who can fix anything but can’t get a job,” she said. “It’s because these guys have a mechanical mind but they can’t read well enough to pass tests. So they can’t get certified.”

Two years ago, Sams-Abiodun’s much-discussed analysis of unemployment among New Orleans’ black men, co-authored with the New Orleans Fatherhood Consortium, examined why more than half of the city’s African-American males are out of work. “African-American men represent an underutilized resource,” she wrote in the report’s conclusion, which suggested, among other things, that smoother transitions are needed for students — especially black-male students — as they move from school to college or from their teen lives into the world of adult work.

“I kept saying, ‘I want my son to have a better life than I did’ … It’s no longer just words.”

Often, the key to landing that job is who you know, Sams-Abiodun said. “Your social network matters. It helps you get a job — someone can call and vouch for you,” she said. “Many young black men, the reason they don’t have jobs is that they don’t have that network.”

Leggett’s participation in Work & Learn increases his chances of becoming a mechanic by expanding not only his job skills and experience, but his network.

Already, Sawyer of Youth Empowerment sees a steady stream of past apprentices returning to the Work & Learn staff, seeking not only references but essential advice and support. “That’s turned out to be one of the biggest pieces of this — having someone in your corner,” she said.

High schools jump-start careers

The tall instructor from Delgado Community College bent his knees a little to draw an electrical diagram on the blackboard. Then he stood back. “This is about current flow. Everything is about current flow,” he said, reminding his class that each squiggly line was a resistor.

The class at the Warren Easton Charter High School consisted of about two dozen young African-American men, who nodded to show they understood.

Last year, these potential electricians were part of the first Warren Easton class to participate in a new state “dual-enrollment” program called Jump Start that allows all juniors and seniors to take technical classes at the college level and earn career certifications while still in high school. Participants take classes at Delgado Community College and other colleges — in an effort, like Work & Learn, to give students exposure to a range of technical and academic skills that will prepare them for evolving job markets.

Related: Can we really prepare kids for both college and career?

As the electronics lesson continued, Lindsey Moore, Jr., a Warren Easton junior, raised his hand. “Will the circuit blow if one node is uneven?” he asked. When Moore graduates next spring, he will receive both a conventional high school diploma and an electrician’s certificate, which will allow him to be hired immediately as an electrical lineman in an industrial plant, and enable him to afford additional studies in electronics, or pursue a degree in a different field.

These students are high-achieving young black men attending a well-regarded New Orleans school. According to school counselor Patrice Strickland, roughly 75 percent of Warren Easton’s students enroll in a college of some sort. Yet research shows that they, too, are at risk of not finding stable employment. Even with a high school diploma, their prospects of finding work are about the same as those of a white high school dropout.

A White House report issued in July noted that 21 percent of black men earn a college degree by their late twenties, compared with 40 percent of white men. In Louisiana, only 28 percent of high school students go on to complete at least an associate’s degree in college. The rate is even lower in New Orleans, a factor noted in Sams-Abiodun’s report, which characterizes it as a root cause of black male unemployment. “Only 15 percent of black men have post-secondary education in the city,” she said. “That’s been consistent since 1980.

Recognizing that not all their students can afford to attend college, Warren Easton administrators also focus on job readiness. “We push our students, so that once they graduate, they have viable employment,” Strickland said. She noted that students who earn the electrician’s certificate can use their electricians’ wages to pay college tuition. So far, electrical classes have been the most popular of the school’s vocational offerings; but Warren Easton students are also taking college courses in nursing, medical records, hospitality, fitness and emergency-medical response.

Sometimes, when Strickland speaks with students about the dual-enrollment program, she talks money, plain and simple. She tells them how, after Hurricane Katrina, she rebuilt her water-damaged home, paying dearly to get the wiring re-done. “I still remember how much I paid my electrician,” she says.

From dead-end job to college and career

Job training programs in New Orleans
David Brown, 21, just landed a full-time job with benefits after an apprenticeship that included working in the Tulane University power plant. Credit: Courtesy of the Cowen Institute

As pumps hummed behind him, David Brown Sr. put his hand on a big lever connected to a massive boiler and turbine engine. One pull on the lever and Brown can keep Tulane University’s electricity running during a hurricane or any other loss of power.

Related: Colleges take new approach to anticipating — and meeting — workforce need

Work at the Tulane power plant is a good fit for the mechanically inclined young man, who has memorized each component and recently learned how to take apart and reassemble the big pumps. Brown, 21, is apprenticing at Tulane through Earn and Learn, a new program launched last year by the Cowen Institute, a non-profit that studies and researches issues that affect the city’s children and youth. Earn and Learn targets youth who are out of work, out of school, or working in jobs in which they have no opportunity to advance. Each apprentice works a few days a week at a Tulane University job, takes community college classes and receives life-skills and career coaching.

48 percent — The employment-population rate for black men in New Orleans, compared to a black male rate of 53 percent nationwide and a nationwide white male employment-population rate of 65 percent.

About half of Earn and Learn apprentices lack a high-school diploma. Though Brown graduated from high school with good grades, he was stuck in a menial job stocking shelves at night. He lacked a career pathway, despite his academic talents. Those talents were well-known to Earn and Learn program manager Matthew Feigenbaum, a former high school math teacher at Renew Accelerated High School, who says Brown was an A student in his geometry and advanced-algebra classes.

Feigenbaum says his organization routinely sees“young adults without a next step”: bright young people stuck in dead-end jobs in which they’re forced to live day-to-day with little thought of the future, much less a career.

A total of 16 Earn and Learn apprentices combine on-the-job experience at Tulane with community college classes and soft-skills and career training that includes weekly one-on-one meetings with Feigenbaum. Feigenbaum helped Brown set up a bank account and has worked with him to achieve other personal goals. “The program, it does everything,” said Brown, who used his classroom time to work toward a boiler license.

Earn and Learn paid for passes for the streetcar that Brown took to work each day and footed the bill for any books Brown needed for his classes at Delgado Community College. It also worked with him to make sure that he had all the services he needed for his one-year-old son, D.J., who is cared for by Brown’s mother while he and his girlfriend work.

In order to find jobs for their graduates, all the fledging New Orleans programs face some additional challenges, including how to physically get apprentices to industries that are hiring. That’s a problem mirrored across the nation, as urban jobs have shifted to suburban or ex-urban areas.

In New Orleans, researchers at Greater New Orleans, Inc. and other economic-research organizations have found that much of the future job growth for the region will be located a few hours away, along the Gulf Coast in the high-growth coastal restoration industry, or in the oil and energy plants in the state’s “petrochemical corridor” that lines the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge.

But for many New Orleanians, the Gulf Coast and the state’s petrochemical corridor are basically unreachable. “We lack the connection between people and jobs,” said Flozell Daniels, Jr., head of the Foundation for Louisiana, which sponsors different workforce development initiatives.

Sawyer, from the Youth Empowerment Project, said that these barriers aren’t insurmountable, but they need to be tackled more creatively. YEP, for example, linked several apprentices with a co-worker driving the same route and provided the co-worker with gas cards as part of the car-pool arrangement.

Brown will let someone else ponder the logistical dilemma. This summer, armed with his expanded work experience and social network, he applied for, and was offered, a full-time position with benefits at a local shipyard in eastern New Orleans, just a short bus ride away from his home. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said with a grin, noting that Earn and Learn will help him become certified on the machines he needs to operate in his new job.

Brown made a pledge to himself a year ago, after D.J. was born: “I kept saying, ‘I want my son to have a better life than I did,’” he said. Now, thanks to a year-long program and his hard work, Brown feels like he can keep his promise. “It’s no longer just words,” he said.

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about New Orleans.

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