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A Huge Dallas Fair Offers Jobs To Unemployed Youth -- And A Chance Out Of Poverty

To help address youth unemployment in North Texas,  several companies recently gathered at the first-ever Dallas Opportunity Fair, a day-long hiring event to help local 16- to 24-year-olds find jobs.

Who are the disconnected?

Thirteen percent of young people in Dallas-Forth Worth are what social scientists call the “disconnected.”

“This would be young adults, who have graduated or not graduated high school, who have moved into a job maybe once, but not stuck, with no career path,” said Laurie Larrea, president of Workforce Solutions Greater Dallas. “And they tend to fall into a group of ‘what else can I do?’ They lose hope and they fall away.”

Young parents, folks with criminal records, people buried in debt and living in poverty: Larrea said any combination of these factors are barriers to finding stable employment.

Move into neighborhoods like South Dallas and Oak Cliff, and the number of disconnected youth goes up to one in four. In West Dallas, it’s as high as 34 percent. In contrast, the lowest rate of disconnection in all of North Texas is just 6 percent – in West Plano.

That’s according to data from Measure of America, a project from the Social Science Research Council.

Credit Measure of America
Measure of America
The highest rate of youth disconnection in North Texas is in West Dallas and the Fair Park area. The lowest is in West Plano.

Larrea said Dallas as a whole has a robust economy. But she says too often, pockets get ignored.

“That doesn’t say that every community participates equally and is seeing that same bounce from the economy. How long do you ride a wave like this?” she said. “We need these kids. We need them in the pipeline. Employers need them. Our economy needs them.”

Connecting the disconnected

That’s why at the first-ever Dallas Opportunity Fair, more than 30 national employers were prepared to offer 1,700 jobs on the spot. It was billed as one of the largest youth job fairs in state history.

Large retailers like JCPenney, Five Guys, Walmart and even Sprinkles cupcakes set up stalls at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in downtown.

The ambience was more county fair than job fair. It felt like a place not to be bogged down by the stresses of work.

There was a Starbucks station teaching aspiring baristas the art of a latte. Macy’s employees showed folks how to tie a tie, and LinkedIn took free headshots and helped create online profiles.

There were also application and resume-building stations, as well as practice interviews.

Credit Stephanie Kuo
Stephanie Kuo
A practice interview station helped prep applicants with tips: what questions to ask and words to never use.

“These young people arrive, often having been told that they are not ready to work and that they’re not even hirable. We reject that,” said John Kelly, senior vice president of global social impact and public policy for Starbucks.

The coffee company leads the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, which is a national coalition of employers and social service organizations, dedicated to eliminating youth unemployment around the country. The group put on this fair in Dallas and previously hosted events in Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix and Seattle.  

“This isn’t a career fair. This is literally a job fair, where they go in and they interview, and many of them will walk out with one or two job offers,” Kelly said. “And that’s transformative to a kid or a young person who has been told they’re not hirable.”

Getting a job is not enough

Javion Darrell Roshyne Brandon is 16 years old and is really just starting out in life.

“I love working. I like helping people, and money. I love money,” he said. "I’d do anything it takes to get a job.”

Brandon started off working on a chicken farm when he was just 13, but this will be his first time tackling a more corporate gig.

“I had butterflies in my stomach. I ain’t gonna lie,” he said. “It was my first time doing any kind of interview. I learned a lot of things: how to sit down and talk to people, what questions to ask and how was I supposed to approach myself.”

For 17-year-old Diamond Robinson, finding a job in her neighborhood in South Dallas is tough. The area hasn’t seen much development or job opportunities.

Credit Stephanie Kuo / KERA News
An inspiration wall at the job fair allowed attendees to post their dreams and ambitions.

“It’s kind of messed up. You have to go out of the way, and sometimes you don’t want to go out of the way just to work,” she said. “But you have to provide, so you have to do what you have to do.”

Robinson can’t drive, and she worries about hours-long commutes by bus. She also has a 2-year-old daughter – so before she can even work, she needs to find childcare she can afford. Robinson shares that problem with many. Dallas’ teen pregnancy rate is 50 percent above the national average – and it has the highest rate of repeat pregnancies in the country. That’s a huge barrier to finding work.

Starbucks’s John Kelly said he knows just getting a job isn’t enough.

“We want them to be successful, so the employers are working with community groups to identify some of those practices that employers are going to have to do differently, such as providing transportation.”

Many local nonprofits provide bus passes or vanpools already, but Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said there’s a way to do more.

“We’re working with DART on how we can provide greater transportation. I met with the CEO of Uber, and we’re going to talk about different test markets to get people to jobs,” he said. “There are certain parts of Southern Dallas that don’t have retail capabilities, and we’ve put a lot of money out there as a city council to attract retailers.”

Rawlings said the city also needs to better connect young people to programs that can help with building life skills – like how to cash a check or open a bank account. Helping them attain enough academic proficiency to understand complicated application and tax forms is also a priority.

An economy for everyone

Until then, many of the opportunity fair’s attendees are grateful to have a job at all. Each new hire was met with bells and cheers.

Tekeyh Harris got an offer from Macy’s.

“I’m feeling really excited,” she said, giggling.

Meshi Scott got three jobs and was leaning toward accepting the one from Five Guys.

“I didn’t think I was going to leave with a job today, but I did, so I’m excited,” she said. “I mean, I’ve been struggling to find a job. It’s been hard. I just had a baby so, I’m just ready to work.”

With a push from the Opportunity Fair, Dallas inches closer to its goal: an economy where there’s a place for everyone.

Former KERA staffer Stephanie Kuo is an award-winning radio journalist who worked as a reporter and administrative producer at KERA, overseeing and coordinating editorial content reports and logistics for the Texas Station Collaborative – a statewide news consortium including KERA, KUT in Austin, Houston Public Media and Texas Public Radio in San Antonio.