An interview with Ken Smith

by | Jan 7, 2020 | Uncategorized | 0 comments

Jobs for America’s Graduates (JAG)is entering its 40th year as a national non-profit dedicated to preventing school dropouts and helping challenged young people succeed in post-secondary education and secure good jobs. It’s become the nation’s premier education and job preparation/placement program for challenged youth–helping more than 1.3 million young people graduate from high school, pursue post-secondary education and secure good jobs.

Since JAG’s founding, its president has been Kenneth M. Smith. I interviewed Ken recently to learn more about JAG’s unique history and what the future holds for the organization.

Mike Nietzel: Tell me how JAG got started, nearly 40 years ago.

Ken Smith: The program was founded in Delaware at a time when the state had the second-highest unemployment rate for young people and the second-highest dropout rate in the nation. At that time, I was Chief Education Advisor to Governor Pete du Pont. He asked us to set up task forces from business, government, education, unions, and the workforce to design a program that would be “far more effective, far more accountable, and far more cost-effective for the most challenged young people in our state.”

The state was in a terrible mess at the time, in near-bankruptcy. Wall Street would not buy its bonds. The biggest employer, the DuPont Company, was threatening to leave because of high taxes, and Supreme Court desegregation decisions were dramatically changing schools in the northern part of the state.

Nevertheless, Governor du Pont seized on the urgent needs of the state’s most challenged youth and approved the plan developed by the five task forces. JAG began its history of bipartisan leadership with an offer by then-Vice President Walter Mondale to provide federal funding for testing the Delaware model. The rest is history.

Nietzel: JAG has grown dramatically–what’s its current footprint?

Smith: Today we operate in 1,400 locations in 39 states, serving about 75,000 young people in middle schools, high schools; and in 90 locations, we also serve high-school dropouts and system-involved young adults.

Nietzel: How successful has JAG been in helping students facing poverty and other barriers finish high school, get jobs, and pursue post-secondary education?

Smith: The results achieved by our young people and their Job Specialists, who work with them on the front lines, are extraordinary.

Across 40 years, JAG has rarely had less than a 90% graduation rate. For last year’s class, it was a remarkable 95.8%–from American Indian Reservations in Montana and South Dakota, to the Mississippi Delta and northern New England, to the inner cities of Detroit, St. Louis, Atlanta, and Cleveland.

JAG more than doubles the rate at which young people get jobs, including a 230% improvement in acquiring full-time jobs compared to all 18-to-20-year-olds. Female JAG students experience a 260% improvement in finding full-time jobs, and African American participants realize a 290% improvement.

Nietzel: What are JAG’s core principles?

Smith: In the end, it boils down to Governor du Pont’s guidance when we built the model: The organizing principle is to prepare young people to be more effective in entry-level jobs and successful in post-secondary education than the average 18-to-20-year-old and – ultimately – than the average adult.

We have 37 Employability Skills around which our Project Based Learning and supporting instruction are delivered. These competencies are tied to what employers have told us are the most crucial skills young people should possess.

We combine that training with the creation of a student-led organization based on the success of career and technical education student groups like FFA, SkillsUSA, Junior Achievement, and the Boys and Girls Clubs. Its activities are organized around helping student members continue their training through competitive events centered on the Employability Skills. We also emphasize community service to develop leadership, project management, communication and organizational skills.

Job Specialists are held responsible for students success in school, on the job, and/or in post-secondary education–the accountability that Governor du Pont highlighted.

The Job Specialists stay with their grads for 12 months after graduation to help assure that success–and growth–occur on the job, in post-secondary education or a combination of both.

Nietzel: What are the main obstacles preventing schools from adopting JAG?

Smith: The short answer is funding and priorities. Schools are faced with many requirements from states and school districts. Therefore, they devote most of their resources to meeting testing and other requirements for graduation. It’s often difficult to prioritize resources for a JAG program even with its proven success in helping students graduate, secure good jobs and/or post-secondary education, or join the military.

Fourteen Governors serve on JAG’s national Board of Directors–the most of any nonprofit board in the country. They’ve taken the lead in securing additional resources through state appropriations and matching funds from local schools, workforce boards, and community foundations. They also frequently use federal funds like TANF, SNAP, Community Development Block Grants, and Pre-Employment Transition Services.

Nietzel: Are employers eager to hire JAG’s graduates?

Smith: We have great employer partners. They typically have 50 employees or less–even if they’re part of a national organization. Today, some 19,000 employers hire JAG graduates. They do so because our graduates have those 37 Employability Skills, are customer-focused, and are eager to learn more.

We’re honored to have national supporting companies like AT&T, Hilton, Archer Daniels Midland, McDonald’s, Synchrony, HCA, Energy, Honeywell, Weyerhaeuser, Regions Bank, Microsoft, Amazon, Tesla, and GE, along with major staffing companies like Adecco, to name just a few. And JAG receives sustained support from the Strada Education Network, AT&T Foundation, and the Harold Alford Foundation.

Nietzel: What are the organization’s goals for the future?

Smith: Our Board is convinced we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity stemming from a combination of demographics and economics. Today is the best chance in our lifetimes for young people to secure good jobs with accelerated career pathways. We’re determined to seize that opportunity.

The Board unanimously adopted a plan to double our scale over the next four years. For our next interview, I plan to report we’re serving 150,000 young people in 2,500+ locations across the nation.


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