Review: Year Up by Gerald Chertavian – how to close the opportunity divide & the skills gap

This review first ran in the Sept. 24 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

A Year Up: How a Pioneering Program Teaches Young Adults Real Skills for Real Jobs with Real Success

By Gerald Chertavian

Social entrepreneur Gerald Chertavian is singing for his supper in Microsoft’s corporate dining room. The event is being hosted by one of America’s leading venture philanthropy organizations.

Chertavian, a Harvard Business School grad who made his fortune as a technology entrepreneur and Wall Street banker, is founder and CEO of                                Year Up. Launched 12 years ago in Boston, the nonprofit now serves nearly 1,500 students annually in nine U.S. cities.

Not only is Year Up free to recent high school graduates, they’re also paid a daily stipend and can earn up to 23 college credits.

Half of Year Up’s funding comes from fees paid by corporations that hire student interns. Less than 10 per cent of the program’s funding comes from     the government. The balance is covered by donors like the ones Chertavian is meeting with at Microsoft.

“The food is superb, the talk earnest and civil,” says Chertavian about the dinner. “Until I get the question that always kills my appetite.”

One of the donors questions the $25,000 per student cost for Year Up. Chertavian asks if the donor’s children went to private school and does a quick calculation that pegs four years of tuition at $260,000.

“Why then do we think that spending one-tenth that amount on a young adult who has no opportunities or advantages is somehow expensive? Why is one person worth 10 times the investment of another?”

Chertavian then cites a 2009 study by an economic consulting firm that shows Year Up grads in Boston boost their lifetime earnings by more than $1 million and contribute a commensurate amount in taxes.

Nearly 70 per cent of Year Up students graduate and the majority land high-skilled, high-paying jobs or continue their education at college.

So here’s how Year Up works its magic. Students must first pass a rigorous admissions process and sign a contract. “At Year Up, there is no tolerance for what’s been called the soft bigotry of low expectations,” says Chertavian. “We expect a lot from our students because we respect them.”

If accepted, students spend their first five months in the classroom learning marketable skills in information technology, financial operations and quality assurance. The curriculum is tied to the changing needs of the local job market.

Students also focus on mastering the ABCs of attitude, behaviour and communication. They hone their soft skills in everything from dressing and communicating professionally to managing their finances and having a positive attitude.

A mentor is recruited for each student, who’s also plugged into a peer support network. On average, a Year Up student is wrestling with three major challenges outside the classroom, from homelessness and domestic violence to lack of child care and undiagnosed mental health issues.

Students then spend the next six months completing internships at blue-chip companies. For these firms, joining forces with Year Up is a smart business decision. “It’s a source of young, ambitious, smart labour,” says John Galante, chief information officer for Chase Wealth Management.

“It’s worked out very well for us in terms of being an excellent business case for certain skill sets. It’s a great way to reach out to close the divide. It’s also a great energizer for employees around the interns as they come in. I tell anyone — there’s not a big risk here. Add it up: a great business case, great for the community, an energizer for your staff — it’s really a win-win.”

And therein lies the key to Year Up’s success. The program narrows the opportunity divide for its students by closing the skills gap for employers.

“In so many ways, they’re just what our economy needs,” Chertavian says about Year Up students who overcome adversity to become remarkably resilient, resourceful and motivated. “Despite the nation’s high unemployment rate, jobs are going begging — the very jobs our graduates learn the skills for. There are plenty of jobs out there now, many of them information-based that don’t require college degrees. But they demand skills not taught in high schools.”

Inspired by his experience as a Big Brother, Chertavian created Year Up and wrote this book to challenge and change perceptions. “Year Up’s talented, successful workforce is made up of individuals too many of us have long been conditioned to see as liabilities. Our young adults are huge assets to an ailing economy once they’re given an opportunity. Far from being a drag on our economic engine, these skilled new workers will be the key to its future.”

There are two reasons why you should read this remarkable book.

First, all net proceeds are donated back to Year Up.

And second, Chertavian makes the business case for a similar investment that’s badly needed in Hamilton’s own Code Red neighbourhoods. His stories about Year Up students and grads prove that investing in young people is always a smart, safe and sure bet.

And Chertavian reminds us that, as a community, we simply cannot afford to continue wasting so much promise and potential.

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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