Written By: Caitlin Dawkins, Program Director, National Institute for Work and Learning, FHI 360
Earlier this month I participated in a workshop sponsored by the National Youth Employment Coalition on how justice involved youth are navigating past incarceration during the Coronavirus pandemic. About 30 of us gathered to discuss how to keep up service delivery, how to respond to COVID’s challenges to work and learning; as well as to share some surprise good news.
Returning to Communities in the Midst of a Pandemic
The pandemic has exacerbated poverty and crime through massive job loss, widespread furloughs, and health crises for families, who in many cases lack adequate health insurance. College and university closures last Spring made access to education and professional certifications difficult for returning youth keen to make a fresh start, gain skills, and enter the workforce. In the communities these youth return to, they are seeing small businesses and potential employers closing, domestic violence and substance abuse rising, and social isolation affecting mental health. Black, Indigenous people and people of color are disproportionately bearing the brunt of these secondary impacts, just as they have disproportionately experienced the health impact of the virus.
Through it all, FHI 360’s National Institute for Work and Learning is helping vulnerable young people get skills and resources to successfully reenter their communities. We lead the Compass Rose Collaborative, a partnership funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, through which we work with community-based organizations in ten communities across the United States to provide technical assistance and capacity building to community-based organizations that provide direct service to young people that includes workforce skills, education and internship opportunities to young adults who have been through the justice system.
Unexpected Outcomes – What We Found
The workshop participants all noted that a high priority for reentry programs across the country was to move as many services as possible online, as quickly as possible so returning citizens could keep up with their training programs, financial literacy courses, meet with their case workers and counselors, and feel supported. On the plus side, the move to online classes removed transportation and childcare barriers for the participants, allowing them to spend more time at home. It can be hard to navigate training on a phone, and many participants cannot afford additional mobile data plans to attend their classes. The Compass Rose team recognized this and supplied them with laptops, software, and internet hot spots. Case managers have connected some participants to local resources to receive discounted internet access.
This rethink on integrating technology into all operations yielded many positive outcomes. For example, our local service delivery partners implemented electronic signatures for stipend payments, and for signing enrollment packages to limit in-person interactions. They also made greater use of e-gift cards for incentive payments. These service improvements will likely become permanent.
The pandemic has closed some work opportunities but opened others as employers seek delivery drivers, grocery store workers, contact tracers, food bank helpers, and medical technicians. Compass Rose has had to adopt new techniques for conducting labor forecasting to better position young people for high demand jobs during and after the pandemic. The move to more frequent updating of labor demand is necessary to keep up with the evolving economy, diverse employers’ needs, and will better serve the returning youth in the long run. The need for workers in certain employment sectors has even presented employment opportunities for participants with employers that previously would not had offered a second chance to them by looking past their justice involvement.
With the move to online classes and social media for routine contacts and check-ins, Compass Rose local providers found that overall engagement from returning youth has improved. For example, a program in Kentucky held a Zoom Cooking Class for staff and young adults, delivering ingredients to young adults so that they could participate in the virtual class. There are plans to have a virtual cupcake competition in the near future. Another Compass Rose program in St. Louis hosted a virtual painting session, which has been replicated in Los Angeles. In Baltimore, the Compass Rose implementing partner hosts a Facebook Live event every Tuesday and Thursday to share program updates while service providers explain what is available to young people. For participants, this form of interaction is easy to attend, ask questions, and engage in some enjoyable and skills-based activities. An unexpected benefit of this form of engagement is the recruitment of additional young people to enroll into the Compass Rose Collaborative program. FHI 360 has also provided opportunities for peer sharing and networking amongst the partners involved, allowing for best practices to be replicated and lessons learned to be shared.
Since 2017, Compass Rose’s results have been impressive. Over 70 percent of participants are placed in a long-term education program, apprenticeship, or employment. The project also measures recidivism, which is under 4% by DOL standards. These young people are working hard to survive and thrive, and we must continue to support them. The Compass Rose Collaborative is committed to helping our participants each step of the way.
 “The Compass Rose Collaborative is 100% funded by the U.S. Department of Labor in the amount of $4.5M. No other sources of funding support the program.”