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Year Up students on cusp of completing ‘life-changing’ experience

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This is the final installment in a series of stories we’ve written following five participants in the Year Up program. 

Just over a year ago, Ronald Shackelford Jr. and his fiancée Taylor Brown were treading water. Ronald was recovering from a seizure at the Philadelphia Airport and working odd jobs. Taylor had been bouncing between customer-service, collector, and fraud analyst roles at local banks. Their lease was about to expire, and they didn’t have the money for a new security deposit, so they were moving in with Ronald’s parents. And they had a year-old baby to support.

And then they got an email from the Year Up program, inviting them to apply for the next class, which was scheduled to start in March 2019. Their names were on the mailing list because they had considered applying back in 2015 but decided not to proceed because they felt they couldn’t survive on what everyone involved agrees is a small stipend. But they went ahead and applied this time because, as Taylor put it, “not doing so would be a disservice to our family.”

Fast forward nine months. Taylor and Ronald will graduate with 26 other young adults on Jan. 29, finishing at the top of their class. Both have started analyst jobs at JPMorgan Chase – Taylor as a software engineer in the home lending department and Ronald in asset servicing. Ronald is the fastest “conversion” ever for the local Year Up program, meaning JPMorgan Chase offered him a job faster than any previous participant.

And their combined household income will now be north of $150,000 per year.

“We had a different type of motivation than most of the people in our cohort,” Taylor said. “We were living with our parents and wanted more in our lives than fast food and Walmart. If Year Up delivered everything it said, it would be a blessing. And it would be stupid for us to throw it all away.”

“Year Up helps people who need an alternative method to get to where they need to be,” Taylor said. “It’s like what it says in their collateral – underserved. It’s an alternative program for people who have been missed.”

“Year Up levels the playing field, regardless of your background, if you suck it up and do the work,” Shackelford added. “We both worked during the program. That was a challenge. We have a kid, go to school all day, and then go to another job. We’ve been tired all the time, but we survived because there’s something driving us that was a bit different.”

“I have a tremendous amount of respect for Ronald and Taylor,” Year Up of Greater Philadelphia Executive Director A. Hassan Charles said. “This is a program where you’ll get out what you put in. What I really, really love is the accountability aspect. The concept of the contract is the game changer. You sign a contract to follow certain behaviors that will make you successful in the workplace. Those who accept that and put in the most time and effort usually get the most reward. Those who make excuses and have explanations for why they couldn’t or didn’t are the ones who struggle.”

But Charles is quick to point out that while the DBT is focusing this story on Ronald and Taylor, they’re not alone in their class as being successful.

“Ronald and Taylor are very fine examples of two people who gave their all from Day One,” he said. “But 75% of our students did the same thing with the same spirit.”

“I think Year Up matters because we’re connecting young adults who need an opportunity with companies that need young talent,” Charles said. “It matters because we can do a deeper dive into the opportunities that our partners are struggling to fill and give specific training and support to perform successfully in those roles and those environments.”

The Southern Regional Education Board works with 16 states to improve public education at every level and found that 32% of the workforce in Delaware is highly vulnerable to rising workforce skill demands, said Delaware State Chamber President Michael J. Quaranta. That’s a primary reason why his organization is so focused on programs like Year Up.

“There are a substantial number of people around the state who are underemployed,” Quaranta said. “We need to aggressively move into retraining. If we don’t, by 2030 we’ll go from underemployed to completely unemployable. I expect Gov. Carney to propose something like that in his State of the State Address and hope the legislature works with speed to embrace programs where people can step into an in-demand job making $16-$17 or more an hour with benefits and long-term career prospects.”

Taylor Brown, Ronald III, Tom Horne and Ronald Shackelford Jr. | Photo by Ron Dubik

For the Year Up class that graduates next week, 15 of the 28 students have received or are in the process of being hired by the company hosting their internship. Ten more have or will be hired elsewhere and three more will go back to school full time, said Brittaney Shade, external relations manager at Year Up. She said the average starting hourly salaries are $20 per hour with some as high as $35 per hour (equating to between $41,000 and $72,000 per year). In Delaware, they are working at places like JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America, Exelon, Sallie Mae, and BNY Mellon.

“We take talent where we can find it,” said Tom Horne, Delaware market leader for JPMorgan Chase, which is a nationwide sponsor for the Year Up program. JPMorgan Chase has hosted more than 1,000 interns through the program since 2007 and nearly 300 Year Up alumni work for the bank today.

“Year Up is doing a good job at preparing these kids for when they come to us,” Horne said, adding that the key determinant for success during the Chase internship is the manager we put them with and the extent to which they pay attention to them without providing special treatment. “Our conversion rate continues to grow – it currently stands at 70% and many of the students choose to pursue four-year degrees. We’re finding diamonds in the rough and Year Up and Zip Code and others are helping close the opportunity divide. These aren’t charities or handouts.”

“Organizations like Year Up are an important source of talent for Bank of America and many other employers in Delaware, helping to transform communities in crisis into thriving neighborhoods that fuel economic growth and prosperity for all,” Bank of America Delaware Market President Chip Rossi added. “That’s one of the reasons Bank of America selected Year Up Wilmington as our Neighborhood Builder in 2018, providing a $200,000 unrestricted operating grant to help double the number of young people graduating from the program.” 

Zip Code Wilmington Executive Director Desa Burton said everyone talks about the talent crisis but “the solution has always been right under our noses. Talent is everywhere; opportunity is not. If we’re going to advance in technology and innovation, that’s going to come from a group of people who we’ve just ignored.”

In many of these cases, Burton added, the participants are people “who thought life has passed them by or were impacted by a catastrophic event. I interviewed a guy for our new cohort who got his bachelor’s degree from UD and then his mom became ill and he needed to take care of her. He’s been a sanitation worker while he takes care of her. And now he’s ready to pivot into a technical role.”

“There are remarkable people coming out of these programs,” she said. “Some are young people who graduated from high school but found that college didn’t work for them; I have one or two Ph.Ds. in every program who are pivoting into technology. Ronald’s story doesn’t surprise me. We just need programs that create opportunities.

We asked Ronald and Taylor about what impressed them most about the other person during the program.

“How well she worked under pressure and kept her composure,” Shackelford said, going first. “She’s a computer programmer and was a leader in her class, and it’s a little harder for a girl in that world. She dealt with all that with class and poise.”

Seemingly startled by Ronald’s answer, she took a second and then said, “I was impressed with the work ethic that came out. He’ll do anything to make sure we’re provided for, but this was a really hard experience. I think he downplays it. He was working another job after school from Tuesday through Sunday, four or five hours a day five days a week. He did that for eight months until he got hired by JPMorgan. All that and he was at the top of our class. Everyone looked to Ronald for leadership. Classmates came to him for study guides. The elevator pitch competition. He took all that weight and put it on his shoulders and stood up straight.”

We let Shackelford have the last word on why programs like Year Up matter.

“They matter because it’s not the same world of 10 years or 20 years ago. That group went to college, had low student loans and paid them back. Now, educational level doesn’t necessarily match salary. YU is like a cheat code. I shouldn’t have been able to get into JPMorgan. But people saw potential and how hard I worked and saw value. That’s life-changing.” 

The earlier installments in this series can be read here, here, and here.

By Peter Osborne
DBT Editor

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