When Say Yes Buffalo launched, the goal was to help city students from disadvantaged backgrounds succeed in college and future careers.
But it’s always been clear not every kid may be cut out for college and some simply can’t afford to wait four years to enter the workforce. That’s led to the creation of a youth apprenticeship program designed to create a pipeline into jobs while helping plug a workforce gap for area employers.
Funded by the Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Foundation for a three-year pilot, the CareerWise Greater Buffalo program launched last fall with a cohort of 24 students at six companies. The second cohort of 30 students is slated to begin this summer in jobs at 10 employers. Cohort three is expected to reach 50-75 students. The ultimate goal is to have 600 students working in apprenticeships.
“This is an alternative for kids who don’t want to go full-time for a two or four-year degree, but deserve access to great careers,” said Stephanie Peete, Say Yes director of workforce development. “This is a new opportunity. Some kids need to work and really need to help support their households, especially after all we see coming out of Covid, so it’s important to present them with the opportunity.”
The program matches high school seniors with employers for a three-year apprenticeship in fields that so far include banking and finance, IT, hospitality, media and manufacturing. By the end of the program, they’ll have access to jobs paying at least $45,000 per year with their employer.
They also take one class per semester with Hilbert College, Villa Maria College and the Northland Workforce Training Center, allowing them to earn a certificate by the end of the apprenticeship in a relevant career, or even put toward a two or four-year degree if they decide the time is right.
Say Yes contracts with CareerWise, a national program that provides the general framework, but then relies on its employer partners to figure out the details that work best for the Buffalo market, Peete said.
The student response has been incredible, she said, with more than 1,200 applications from 200-plus students for the first 24 slots. Students could apply for as many positions as they wanted and some of the companies had multiple opportunities.
“We started with a small cohort, which is a good thing for this, so we have constant quality assurance to pivot and figure out how best to serve our kids and our employer partners,” Peete said. “Now we know the student interest is there, and we’re working to expand our employer partners.”
The program also helps grow awareness for employers, whether it’s manufacturers or business operations firms, where students may have heard of the company but have no idea what types of jobs are available.
The program currently starts during the students’ high school senior year, but plans call for expanding to begin during junior year to give families more time to plan out their futures. Along the way, students go through an assessment twice yearly to see how they’re progressing toward competency.
“We have to be realistic,” Peete said. “This really makes sure that career opportunities in our communities are much more accessible and equitable. Young people often get stuck in roles making minimum wage where there’s no career trajectory. This program, when employers come to the table, they actually map out a career pathway. Students can see ‘I can start here but the sky’s the limit within this company if I choose to stay here’. ”