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Real Life jump starts young men’s work skills

Ben Hutson’s wheels kept spinning. Try as he might, the 21-year-old Central Point resident couldn’t get traction in the work world.

After battling through cancer in his teens and finding himself in student loan debt because of a paperwork snafu, Hutson struggled to keep gainfully employed.

“I found part-time jobs and odd jobs galore, but not what I needed to get out of the house on my own,” Hutson said. “After months and months of doing different jobs, getting laid off and more jobs, and getting laid off, I was in a rut and not able to get back into college.”

Hutson was tumbling into the chasm between workplace skills and employment opportunities that has widened for decades.

Then he discovered Youth for Christ Rogue Valley’s fledgling Real Life program, designed to equip young men between 16 and 24 years old with job skills in high-demand industries.

“It’s impossible without certifications in certain areas to get the kind of job that pays $15 to $20, or more, an hour,” Hutson said. “I was really surprised because of how much the program offered.”

Backed by a two-year, $100,000 Oregon Youth Development Council grant, Rogue Valley YFC launched Real Life this spring, starting with automotive, sheet metal, construction and welding training.

Vocational Director Todd Sorensen heads up the program, providing training that leads to internships, apprenticeships and careers. He said the need for job training has become increasingly obvious.

“We’re looking at young men, who typically are not currently attached to the community, not working, dropped out school, or barely eked out a high school diploma,” Sorensen said. “What I found from hanging out with young people is that they’re not lazy or stupid — they’re hopeless. They’ve been told all through school they have to go to college. If they don’t have the academic aptitude, they feel lost and disconnected.”

Upcoming generations view life through the lenses of their cellphones, Sorensen said.

“If we’re using a PowerPoint presentation and we have technical trouble, they get really frustrated and come over and say, ‘Let me show you how to fix it,’” Sorensen said.

Conversely, face-to-face conversation can be overwhelming for teens and 20-somethings.

“Socially, there are challenges when there are complicated situations in the workplace,” Sorensen said.

Role-playing games help expose angst in problem solving.

“If you need to tell your employer you’re sick or ask for a raise, it’s important,” Sorensen said. “It’s really fascinating, because some of them flat couldn’t do that. They say I’ll text my boss or text one of my friends at work, and he’ll tell the boss. If you don’t understand what the person you’re communicating with needs and wants, you will never be able to communicate your needs and wants.”

Hutson said it was important for him to change employer perceptions.

“I’ve been building up my resume, learning to talk to people so they see me as a solution, not a problem,” he said. “If I break something, not just to say it’s broke, but to give me a solution so I can go on with the job, and how I can fix it.”

Real Life takes a two-pronged approach, training young men in life skills as well as job skills.

An intense, five-day boot camp, involving cross-fit training, aptitude testing and projects, sets the stage for a three-month paid internship prior to the placement phase.

“We work on the principle that you succeed or you learn,” Sorensen said. “You only fail if you quit. We keep giving them the opportunity to succeed.”

On Tuesdays, participants work on their soft skills and on Thursdays they meet with community partners, who introduce their crafts.

Kelly’s Automotive, Southern Oregon Subaru, Jantzer Automotive, Metal Masters, J&R Lingafelter Construction, Southern Oregon Chrome and Custom have signed on, and another firm is poised to add to the mix, Sorensen said.

Not everyone in the program has had to learn from the school of hard knocks. Phoenix High School student Sean Madden, who comes from a long line of mechanics and construction workers, sees Real Life as a jump-start to his career aspirations. He’s already taken automotive, welding, and metal fabrication classes but is looking to grease the skids for future employment.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the vocational trades,” Madden said. “At 16, I don’t know how else to get experience like this. I found out about it in an online article and dropped off the application the next day. This gives me a chance to get an internship that I wouldn’t get if I wasn’t in the program.”

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Sean Madden, left, and Greg Huebner work on bird houses in Youth for Christ Rogue Valley’s Real Life program, designed to equip young men with job skills.