Financial services veteran Gerald Chertavian has already made a fortune with the sale of his multimillion-dollar Internet consulting company, but he’s still a man on a mission. For the past decade, he’s headed an organization called Year Up, which seeks to groom inner-city kids for the corporate world.
His book, A Year Up: How a Pioneering Program Teaches Young Adults Real Skills for Real Jobs with Real Success, profiles some of the youngsters enrolled in the training program. When we talked with him recently in Boston, Chertavian was dreaming about thousands of business-attired youngsters one day striding purposely across college campuses nationwide, à la smartly drilled ROTC cadets.
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“I’d love for every young person who thinks there isn’t an opportunity out there for them to realize that there are opportunities in this country,” he says. He contends that two obstacles exist: narrow-minded employers and disheartened young students. Here, Chertavian talks about removing those barriers and whether or not, in the Occupy Age, the corporate world still has any allure left for young people.
How big can a Year Up become?
When we think of scale, we think of 100,000 young adults a year. So we’re designing models right now that can go not just 10-times but 100-times. And to do that, you’ve got to work with and through your community colleges. Rather than opening up freestanding sites around the country, which ultimately would be limited. That would get you to three, four, five or 7,000. But the problem we’re trying to solve is measured in the millions. So you have to find solutions that are at least measured in the hundreds of thousands.
Our belief is that there is a huge opportunity to work with and though our community colleges to effectively create the analog for ROTC in a four-year college and put it into community colleges and call it PTC—Professional Training Corps. Like ROTC, where you would wear fatigues, in PTC you would wear business attire. And instead of studying military tactics in ROTC, you would be studying Microsoft applications in PTC.
Has the Occupy Movement and the corporate world’s tarnished image made your recruitment efforts more difficult?
On the contrary, our students who work for some of the biggest financial institutions in the world are often walking through Occupy protestors in order to get to their jobs. And contrary to what some may think, our financial institutions are not the bad guys—at least I certainly don’t believe they are. And I’d also say having worked in financial services myself, that the vast bulk of people I came across every day were incredibly good, decent human beings who wanted a good job. We know that there are some challenges in our banking system, and we’ve seen that over the years. But to vilify the employer, I honestly don’t think that’s in the interest of long-term economic justice for the students that we serve.
What’s the problem with corporate employers not wanting to hire inner-city kids?
Employers, for many reasons, haven’t looked at our urban communities as sources of talent. Whether it is that the training programs or community programs that they have tried over the years haven’t produced the quality of individual that they would expect. Or indeed, those communities don’t look to those companies as advocates and open doors.
If you imagine a country where you’ve got 14 million people unemployed and close to 4 million open job vacancies. You get this crazy mismatch of supply of labor and demand for labor. You’ve got structural unemployment because the people who have the jobs are not matching well with the people who need and want the jobs. Without question, if employers are not central to solving this challenge, this challenge will not get solved. The government is not going to step in and do it. Our businesses have to get in the business of closing the skills gap for their own motivated self-interest.
How do you make that happen?
There are a couple of things that we do. One of which is we let the students speak for themselves to start. We often connect with a senior person in a business and only ask for opportunities to allow our students to demonstrate their capacity. If the students don’t do well, if the customer, i.e. the business, isn’t happy, don’t pay us. Kick us out. You don’t even have to believe what we say. All we’re asking for is an opportunity to prove it.
We may start with a relatively finite number of interns, but as those interns do well, that company says, “We want more.” This program grew from 22 students in 2001 to 1,500 students today. The reason that’s grown is not because of Gerald Chertavian or any other staff member. It’s because the students have done well and businesses have said those three beautiful words: “We want more.”
What have the students taught you?
They’ve taught me a lot about what this country needs in terms of skilled labor and how our youngsters can be tremendous sources of that talent pool to help our country stay competitive. They’ve also taught me a lot about how race plays out in America. How opportunity can be limited by your zip code. They’ve helped me understand that the vast majority of young people who are growing up in our inner cities are capable, hardworking and smart, and just lack for the opportunity and the access.
As someone who did not grow up in the inner city, you can have a perception as to who lives in our inner cities, who lives in our urban areas, and what are they like. Honestly, my notions growing up where shaped much, much more by having a chance to work with our students over the past 12 years. And recognizing that they only want the same things that I would want for my children, which is opportunity and access to realize their potential.