Omaha has had terrific success with an impressive summer jobs program known as STEP-UP, and this summer the program is poised to step up to an even higher level.
Last summer, the program provided employment to 443 young people aged 14 to 24. This year organizers are aiming for 600.
STEP-UP (Summer Training Employment Pathway and Urban Pipeline) provides employment opportunities with a wide array of Omaha companies, nonprofits and government agencies, but the help for the young people doesn’t stop at summer’s end.
STEP-UP keeps up with the participants after the summer, to check their subsequent progress and continue to provide encouragement. The process is intended to carry the young person forward into further job training and support, to provide a path toward stable employment.
Willie Barney, president of the Empowerment Network, the lead nonprofit group coordinating the STEP-UP program, says it’s now possible to measure the results for young people over time — and the results have been encouraging. “It has an incredible impact,” he says.
STEP-UP helps these young people learn not only a particular job but also the constructive habits — punctuality, clear communication and more — that are important in any workplace.
In a speech last year, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis explained the life-changing difference that summer employment can make for young people:
“My chief economist recently ran the numbers and found huge disparities in the earnings of youth who find a job within six months of graduation and those who don’t. The earnings gap is between 20 and 40 percent.”
The benefits can be especially valuable for young people from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds. Last July, the overall unemployment rate for U.S. young people ages 16 to 24 was 17.1 percent. For black youth, it was 28.6 percent. For Hispanics, 18.5 percent.
The U.S. Department of Labor cites an academic paper on youth unemployment, released in 2012, that explains the stakes involved both for young people themselves and for society:
“When youth do not make smooth transitions through the educational system and into the workplace, they pay a price not only today, but also later in life. Employers look for a smooth trajectory of activity and progress for their future workers, a process by which the young continually acquire workplace skills and acclimate to the demands of the workplace. Research has shown that young persons with significant gaps in the education-work sequence of activity clearly experience a pay and employment handicap even when they later seek work.”
In Omaha, the STEP-UP program is associated with another benefit. As STEP-UP has expanded since 2007, adding more and more young people, the number of summertime gun assaults in northeast Omaha’s precinct has fallen. Last year the number of gun assaults there for May, June and July was the lowest in six years, Barney notes.
The six-year growth of STEP-UP has been impressive. The effort began from input from residents in north Omaha, with key support from Jannette Taylor of Impact One and the Rev. Dwight Ford of the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership.
Now it enjoys support and donations from the Mayor’s Office (which is providing $300,000 in federal funds) and a wide range of Omaha’s most respected businesses and nonprofits. Donations continue to be needed this year, Barney says, as the program expands into South Omaha and throughout the city.
The website for the initiative is StepUpOmaha.com/StepUp. Job applicants can submit their names now. Businesses and organizations that would like to support the initiative can call 402-502-3763.
It’s encouraging to see this civic effort continue to blossom. The benefits are great, both for the young people and for the community as a whole.