Students rehearse at Fine Arts Theatre of Baltimore City Community College for the Year Up graduation taking place on July 22, 2016. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun video)
Ja'Meia Jackson thought she'd never get a good job.
After graduating from high school in 2009, she drifted from one low-paying job to the next, working a cash register at a Macy's, leading football fans to their seats at FedEx Field, collecting tickets at Six Flags America.
She took classes at Prince George's Community College but struggled with assignments while working long hours, and dropped out.
"I felt like I wasn't going to go anywhere," said Jackson, 26, who lives with her parents in Lanham. "Like I was going to be doing this for the rest of my life."
She doesn't feel that way anymore. Now she earns $20 an hour fielding customer service calls full time at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield in Columbia.
Jackson credits her turnaround to Year Up Baltimore, the local branch of a national workforce development program that prepares disadvantaged urban youths and young adults for the middle-skill, entry-level jobs that employers say are increasingly difficult to fill.
The program pays small stipends to thousands of students nationwide each year to complete six months of classes — at a local college, or taught by Year Up instructors — and a six-month internship at a local business, after which many are hired.
Year Up administrators say the program aims to close the "opportunity divide," which leaves young people from low-income neighborhoods without the skills, contacts and, often, the confidence to succeed in the corporate world.
The program is one of many efforts to bring down high youth unemployment — especially among people of color — by expanding practical education programs. In Maryland and nationwide, policymakers, think tanks and private organizations are exploring work programs that sidestep four-year colleges in favor of a direct route to employment.
Congress last year increased funding for many workforce development programs, including an additional $90 million for new apprenticeship programs. In Maryland, the General Assembly approved legislation last year to establish an apprenticeship pilot program. The state Department of Education awarded grants to Frederick and Washington counties to create such programs for high school juniors and seniors.
John Bradley, Year Up's chief operating officer, said such efforts reflect a growing interest in work-based learning programs.
Year Up was founded in Boston in 2000 and has expanded to 15 other cities. More than 2,500 students enrolled in the program last year. Seventy-five percent of participants graduate and 85 percent of the graduates are working or in college full time four months later, Year Up administrators said.
Bradley said the program prepares students for jobs that require some training beyond high school, but not necessarily a college degree.
Robert Milam, 26, graduates from Year Up on Friday.
Milam struggled to find full-time employment after high school. He worked odd jobs — mopping the floors of a local bar, helping out at a neighborhood convenience store — and did temp work in a mail processing center for the Census Bureau.
He said MedStar Health has struggled at times to retain employees in some entry-level positions.
"With our partnership with Year Up, it's easier to fill those gaps as they open," he said.
Sandy Dilworth, vice president of information technology operations at CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield, said that about 50 Year Up students had interned at the company.
"You would think they had just walked in from graduating with a master's degree," she said.
Year Up interns cost less than contract workers, Dilworth said, but contribute just as much value to the company, if not more.
"When they leave, we feel a decrease in production," she said.
Labor statistics show high youth unemployment in cities, especially among young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Bradley blamed their lack of social capital, or connections, and access to jobs, not a lack of ability.
"There are a whole bunch of people, simply by dint of the ZIP code they were born in, that are being closed out or kept away from opportunity," Bradley said.
The unemployment rate is 4.9 percent nationwide, but 16 percent for those ages 16 to 19, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate is higher for African-American and Hispanic youth in that age range, at 31.2 percent and 17.1 percent, respectively.
Census data show that 18.5 percent of African-Americans in Baltimore were unemployed in 2014, the most recent year for which such data were available. Nearly 40 percent of city residents ages 16 to 19 were unemployed.
Youth joblessness creates a drag on the economy, costing $9 billion in lost tax revenue and benefits every year, according to the Brookings Institution, a public policy research organization in Washington.
On-the-job learning allows young people to acquire skills and create value for their employers at the same time, said Robert I. Lerman, a fellow at the Urban Institute in Washington, which conducts social and economic policy research.
MedStar Health, Johns Hopkins, Allegis Group and other employers pay Year Up Baltimore $25,000 per intern, said Roland Selby, the executive director of Year Up Baltimore.
About 80 students enrolled in Year Up Baltimore last year. They take classes in English, math, and information technology or cybersecurity. Students receive a $200 monthly stipend during classes, and a $600 monthly stipend during their internship.
Ike Olumese enrolled in the cybersecurity track this winter. He is scheduled to begin his internship at AOL this month.
Olumese, 18, said he graduated from Oxon Hill High School with a 3.0 GPA in May 2015. Howard University offered him a partial track and field scholarship, but he worried his parents could not afford the remaining tuition.
Instead, he enrolled in Baltimore City Community College, where he learned about Year Up.
"It's long and intensive," he said. "It's really grooming us to perform in the corporate environment."
Selby said the program emphasizes soft skills, including speech, conduct and self-presentation.
Students are penalized for being late or violating the dress code, he said, which leads to reductions in their stipends.
"That's reinforcing the behavior that employers are looking for," Selby said.
Lerman, who has studied youth unemployment in Baltimore, said the "college-for-all" mentality in the United States has prevented many young people from landing in stable careers.
"We've had this model that you stay in school as long as you can and then you try to get the best job you can," he said. "That puts a very high premium on people's willingness to tolerate school."
Milam said he thinks he would've gotten better grades if he could have specialized in technology earlier in school.
"It was the one thing I thought I was good at," he said.
Year Up has allowed Milam to focus on technology, and improved his outlook on the future.
"I don't go to bed wondering what's the point anymore."