Gov. Wes Moore’s signature plan to create a year-of-service program for recent high school graduates is scheduled to begin next month after state officials received hundreds of applications.
The Democratic governor pitched the idea — first on the campaign trail and then during his inaugural legislative session earlier this year — as a way to connect young adults with jobs and inspire long-term dedication to public service.
About 500 people applied for the pilot year by a Sept. 8 deadline, according to the Department of Service and Civic Innovation, the agency Moore created to run the program and other service initiatives. About 200 will be selected to begin on or around Oct. 25. A still-to-be-determined number of other individuals will be picked for a separate service option known as Maryland Corps.
Under both paths, participants will be paid a $15 hourly wage, as well as a $6,000 stipend if they complete at least nine months of work for a nonprofit organization, business or government agency.
In a state with roughly 60,000 new high school graduates a year, Moore has said his vision is for a service year to be available to any recent graduate who wants one, making it “as common an option” as immediately going on to higher education, joining the traditional workforce or any other path.
The cabinet secretary trying to make that vision a reality is Paul Monteiro, a former AmeriCorps program leader and U.S. Department of Justice official who the governor tapped to lead the new state agency.
“It’s a program that really meets the moment,” Monteiro said in an interview. “We’ve talked to a number of high school students and recent graduates, and in a lot of cases, this is what they were looking for.”
“This was the COVID cohort,” Monteiro said, referring to the pandemic that forced many students out of the classroom and into virtual learning for parts of the past three years. “We’re framing this as a growth year — not a gap year, but a growth year.”
Monteiro said the past few months have included outreach to school districts, nonprofits and organizations that serve young people to market the program. He said he’s been “very encouraged by the response,” both from prospective participants and employers who could host them.
Moore has talked about the urgency that both sides of the equation have expressed to him. At a May education forum in Washington sponsored by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation & Institute, he talked about how an executive at an energy company approached him during Maryland’s legislative session and said, “I just want to let you know, I’ll take 200.”
“From the corporate and the business partners, from the unions and government agencies, the demand for that talent and the demand from that pipeline is already probably going to be our biggest challenge,” Moore said at the forum.
Agency staff have been reviewing applications on a rolling basis. Over the next few weeks, they will interview participants, while also selecting host organizations, who will in turn get to interview the applicants before the matches are finalized.
Monteiro said he’s not personally reviewing applications, but his staff is looking at them “holistically” — aiming for a first batch that represents different parts of the state, diverse backgrounds and strong commitments to service. Someone “just looking for a gig” before they go to college is likely not the ideal candidate. Rather, it’s someone seeking to “lift up both their own personal situation and the health of the community,” he said. Participants must be Maryland residents within three years of earning a high school diploma or a similar level of education.
The SERVE Act, the law Moore drafted and that legislators amended to create the program, provides some broad areas of focus that participants could work on — like climate, education, public health and tech.
A fact sheet produced by the service department indicates that could mean roles that include classroom tutoring, working on clean energy projects, or helping people access vaccines and other preventive medicine. The specific organizations that will host the participants for that kind of on-the-job training are still undetermined. More than 100 organizations applied to host participants for the first year, the department said.
“Our goal is really to give people options that lead to meaningful and sustainable careers, and overlay that with what the needs are in the state,” Monteiro said.
Additional training provided by the state is also in the works. The new department is hiring a “small professional development team” that will stay in touch with the participants throughout the year and offer instruction on anything from resume writing to financial literacy, Monteiro said.
While about $15 million was dedicated to the new program under Moore’s first budget — including various funds for outreach, developing an online portal and evaluating the program’s effectiveness — the service-year law also allows for private fundraising to support the effort. Monteiro said those outside investments will be important to grow it to the scale he and the governor envision.
Under the law, the 200-person minimum for the program this year increases to 500 next year, 1,200 people in 2025 and 2,000 people in 2026.
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The $6,000 stipends available to participants at the end of each year — which they can use for any purpose — will be paid by the state, at a cost of $12 million by the time that larger 2026 cohort finishes, according to a fiscal analysis.
At a time when Moore is stressing financial “discipline” heading into the next state budget negotiations, the state will pick up the tab for some of the $15-per-hour salary, paid for by $9.8 million the department received in the first year for grants.
Monteiro said the details of sharing the wage costs will depend on the type and size of the host organization. A small nonprofit doesn’t have the same resources as a major corporation, which may also apply and receive workers, Monteiro said.
“We are looking for some degree of investment on their part,” Monteiro said of the hosts.
Maryland Corps, the service option available to adults who are older than those a few years out of high school, does not have a targeted number of participants under the law. That program was created earlier, but never got off the ground. Legislators updated it in the bill for Moore’s youth-focused service option and provided funding for it.
The youth option has been lauded by both state and national service leaders as something that could become the first large-scale, state government-sponsored youth service initiative in the country.
“It’s such an exciting model and we’re going to keep refining it,” Monteiro said.