City of Boston’s Youth Options Unlimited training program transforming lives in Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan through full-time jobs

Boston Business Journal

By Laura Newpoff

Sep 12, 2019

In 2017, Jaquan Bennett was in Mattapan looking for a bite to eat when he met a man working in the Boston Center for Youth and Families Streetworker Program that works to prevent violence and connect kids and families to important resources. The streetworker told the then-27-year-old about a city program that could help him learn a skilled trade.

Unemployed, and with a past that included jail time, Bennett gave the man his phone number. A year later, he said he got a call back.

“He asked me, ‘Do you want to do construction?’ He said I’d get paid to learn, and it was something I had wanted to do for years,” Bennett said. “I picked sheet metal.”

The streetworker had referred him to a three-and-a-half-week program called Operation Exit, which is part of the City of Boston's Youth Options Unlimited division that works to empower young people from court-involved or at-risk backgrounds to succeed in the workforce, in the community and in their lives.

Mayor Martin Walsh started Operation Exit in 2014 to give young people returning from incarceration a second chance to improve their lives by training for careers in the building trades. Participants receive a stipend and individualized case management while they learn new job skills.

Youth Options Unlimited is a partner in the Lewis Family Foundation’s Jobs Action Tank, which supports key community organizations as part of its long-term goal to place 700 young people from Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan into full-time jobs earning at least $38,000 in annual income.

‘The perfect marriage’

Operation Exit is held once each year and involves extensive skilled trades training along with CPR and OSHA 10 training, financial literacy and money management education, and coaching about soft skills like interviewing and how to obtain mentors.

“These young men and women come from Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan and are in high need of job opportunities,” said Jonathan Makrez, deputy director of Youth Options Unlimited. “They have faced barriers in the past, whether that’s prison or being in a gang, and it makes their journey more difficult than others. They come to us having made a serious commitment to bettering their lives and the lives of their families through seeking meaningful employment opportunities.”

The unemployment rate in those three neighborhoods is 26%, well above the Boston region’s rate of 2.7%.

After Bennett completed the program in July 2018, he joined Sheet Metal Workers’ Local Union 17 where he met training coordinator John Healy. Bennett lacked confidence in his skills, so Healy would let him come down to the local center on weekends to experiment with different tools.

Just days after graduating from Operation Exit, Bennett was hired as a full-time sheet metal apprentice at McCusker-Gill Inc., a sheet metal contractor that gets many of its workers from the union. Vice President Kevin Gill Jr. said Bennett and others receive on-the-job training and at the end of the five-year apprenticeship program, they become sheet metal mechanics.

“Our hope is that they stay with us for the rest of their careers,” Gill Jr. said. “In the Boston market, there’s a desperate need to get more people into the skilled trades. For the city to be able to identify people looking for a steady career with honest pay that gets them on a path toward a better future, you’re really kind of creating the perfect marriage.”

Saving lives

Operation Exit just completed its sixth cycle and has impacted the lives of more than 100 men and women. Gill Jr. said his company is fortunate to be part of a program that can bring more talent into the skilled trades. McCusker-Gill has taken one or two women from each cycle and hired them into full-time apprenticeship positions. Bennett, he said, has embraced his opportunity.

“New apprentices have a lot to learn,” he said. “Our advice is to show up early every day with a great attitude, wanting to learn. Jaquan has high energy, works hard every day and has that desire to learn. Those are all signs of a very bright future.”

Makrez said Mayor Marty Walsh often visits the sites where the graduates work, and the feedback he gets is that they’re successful because of their resiliency, which pairs well with a tough industry like construction that requires early work hours, travel from site to site and physical labor.

Makrez said he also hears feedback from the program’s alumni who come back to attend graduation ceremonies each year.

“They talk about home ownership, the vacations they’re able to take, retirement and pension plans,” Makrez said. “Seeing folks move from food insecurity to ownership of property is a direct result of this program. The passion that these alumni bring back when they come to the ceremony is really proof that the program is working.”

For Bennett, who grew up in Dorchester, Operation Exit has been nothing short of life changing. With felonies on his record, he would routinely get fired from jobs he had in the past after an employer would perform a post-hire background check.

“(Operation Exit) saved my life,” he said. “I didn’t have a lot of options because of the decisions I made in the past. When you get out of prison, you’ve paid your debt to society, but you often don’t feel like you’re being treated like a human being. Now, I can help my family, I can save money. Working at McCusker-Gill makes me feel a pride inside. I feel like someone now.”

Interested in getting involved, or have a successful partnership story to share that focuses on hiring young people from Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan into full-time jobs? Visit the Lewis Family Foundation’s job page for more information.

The vision of the Lewis Family Foundation is that young people from Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan live in and reinvest their service, capital, and intellect to ensure that their neighborhoods continue to thrive and are places of opportunity and access.

Laura Newpoff is a freelance writer with The Business Journals Content Studio