The Boys & Girls Club of Athens opened its YouthForce Innovation Hub at the Georgia Square Mall on Oct. 20, partnering with community nonprofits and businesses to create an opportunity for youth ages 12–21 to develop workforce skills and their career paths.
Occupying the space that was previously a Charlotte Russe on the second floor of the mall, the hub’s bright, modern and flexible open floor plan was designed with input from the teens it will serve. Currently there are eight workstations, including VR headsets that simulate workforce pathways such as aviation mechanics, hospitality and construction; iPads for self assessment tools and career exploration; building and coding robots; cameras and a green screen for creating video content; gear for podcasting, a stage for public speaking, a faux office for mock interviews and a hands-on manufacturing line.
“This is an innovative and interactive approach to workforce development for young people in their teens,” says Sterling Gardner, vice president of development. “Recruiting is one thing, but retaining them is another. You have to make something nice, cool, innovative and creative to get them involved and to keep them involved.”
One of the in-progress stations is retail-oriented with opportunities to learn about purchasing, merchandising, accounting, and how to sell goods and services. The hub’s location in the mall has already provided a connection to a retailer interested in working with the Boys & Girls Club and providing first employment opportunities. Looking forward, the hub is exploring partnerships for healthcare, CNA certification, cosmetology and hospitality programs. Field trips and internships are also among the possibilities for participants.
The UGA School of Social Work has partnered with the program to provide accountability coaches to continue working with young people who receive employment and move on from the space. There will be follow up periods to help employers retain those employees, but should an employee need to resign, the accountability coaches will help them use the proper protocol upon leaving. The hub supplies resources for those interested in pursuing secondary education as well, from filling out applications and financial aid to employment during school.
Prior to opening the hub, the club partnered with nine smaller nonprofit organizations that primarily work with teenagers, providing funding to increase their capacity and make their members club members with access to both programs’ resources. The result of this partnership was serving 207 new club members between 6th–11th grades in two months, and a pipeline of more young people aware of and interested in the hub. One of the partnerships was with Chess and Community, whose founder and executive director, Lemuel “Life” LaRoche, is also the hub’s program director.
“It brought a home for Chess and Community. We do a lot of our programming here and at the library, but this is like the central location,” says LaRoche. “So it also opened the door for other nonprofits to come and utilize this space for free.”
The hub is funded in part by Zach McLeroy, the chairman and founder of Zaxby’s, who expressed interest in youth workforce development when the club approached him about investing in its program. The hub is unique as a Boys & Girls Club entity, and Gardner hopes to use this location as a pilot for other club organizations and create a regional program. Discussions with Boys & Girls Clubs in nearby counties have already begun to provide transportation from their clubs to the hub until it can expand.
“Today’s workers are not like they were 20 or 30 years ago. Young people now are much less money-focused, but they are focused on quality of life and the way they feel in the workplace. Unfortunately, many employers are still very production focused, and they’re not necessarily getting that that attitude is not getting the most out of their employees. So I hope some of the things that we can do is to help bridge the gaps,” says Gardner.
The hub currently operates Monday–Friday from 11 a.m.–7 p.m. with occasional programming on Saturdays. The earlier hours will cater to disengaged youth and 18–21 year olds to teach soft skills and explore career interests, aptitudes and barriers. The three main programs—work ready, job ready, career ready—will take place on different days with different age groups.
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