Recommendations: Cook County DCFS youth recount their experiences with a job training program

Last week’s blog post reported the reflections of DCFS foster youth participants in a job training program, as noted through Chapin Hall focus groups. The Cook County-based program seeks to provide four weeks of training before two months of subsidized work placements, yet the participants’ feedback has been disappointing. How can programs like the Cook County one be improved?


Increased organization and individualized care

One of the most widespread complaints among the DCFS ward participants was the perceived disorganization of the program. One suggestion that Chapin Hall makes is to train DCFS wards separately from other populations for more specialized and individualized attention and training.

The needs of the DCFS ward participants are often starkly different from some of the populations with whom they have been trained (ex-convict adults, for example). The training program is often the first preparation for professionalism that the young participants have ever received. Using age-specific material and encouraging an environment of equality of status and priority could improve the effectiveness of the program for DCFS ward participants.

The smaller training class size would also encourage engagement in the program and give participants the opportunity to ask their questions and receive more individualized support.

Interactive Skill-building activities

Another complaint of the program participants was the worksheet-style training. The DCFS youth preferred a more hands-on approach, citing an interactive “Pretend Town” activity as the most useful part of the training as a whole. Other concrete examples that the participants mentioned included mock interviews, CPR training, and opportunities “where you practice”. Hands-on learning experiences help participants feel that their time is being valued and prepare them for real-world experience.

A more interactive approach also would better equip the young participants to handle unforeseen challenges in the workplace. Preparation for conflict management, emergency response, and other opportunities to think on their feet would help create appropriate response patterns to these situations.

Curriculum for keeping the job, not just landing it

DCFS ward participants expressed frustration over the program’s curriculum, which sought to equip them to write resumes, speak in interviews, and dress for success. Once participants had landed the job, however, participants felt that the skills required of them for continued success, both job-specific and general professionalism, were lacking.

A curriculum including more extensive job-specific training, while necessitating more specialization, could improve the value participants place on the training, their confidence upon entrée into the job, and their performance in their position. Approaching the program with a focus on long-term results (success in job placement) rather than the short-term goal (the initial placement) could increase the participants’ chances of success and satisfaction upon employment, ultimately fulfilling the vision of the program 

Put job placement options in a realistic, positive perspective

Many participants expressed disappointment in the discord between their career interests and their job placements. Clear communication of the existing job placement options and the viability of placement in their fields of interests could improve the participants’ emotional reactions to receiving their placement.

I would also suggest creating a “game plan” of how youth can work their way into their field of interest, even if their initial placement is not going to reflect their preferences. For example, focusing on the skill sets that will be honed in a daycare center that can be applied to a future restaurant host/hostess position could help change participants’ outlook and increase incentive to stay engaged in their placement.

Provide orientation for subsidized job placement staff prior to DCFS ward employment

One of the most disconcerting responses of the participants in the job placement program was feeling used for cheap labor. Rather than perceiving potential for a long-term relationship with their supervisors, the youth express feeling taken advantage of and doubt about employers’ intentions to keep them on as staff.

While the program is a professional partnership between the job placement sites and the program facilitators, a participant-centered approach is critical to beginning those relationships. In the same way that an unpaid intern is paid in practical on-site experience, the subsidized job placements should reflect compensation in experience and professional relationships for the DCFS ward participants.

An orientation session for the employers stressing the factors and goals of the DCFS ward participants could improve respect and understanding between employer and employee and better prepare employers to make the placement an enriching and mutually beneficial experience.

Train staff to treat DCFS ward participants with respect

 Participants often described feeling treated like “little kids” by the program staff. They perceive stigmatization regarding their DCFS ward status and by their age in comparison to some of the adult clientele that the program aids in job placements.

Just as an orientation session would help relationships between the job placement employers and DCFS ward participants, more extensive training for program staff could improve relationships between the program staff and the DCFS ward participants. Those responsible for training participants ought to be training by example – exercising professionalism, respect and compassion in the program.

While these suggestions are by no means comprehensive, they provide a good launch pad for resourcing youth aging out of alternative care.

 A job placement program can open new doors for vulnerable youth who must secure provision and protection in new ways when they are no longer under the care of the State. Stable employment must be made a priority as it can serve as an alternative to the harmful, yet alluring provision of gang membership, theft, or trusting false promises of protection.

These needs are mirrored across the globe. While this Chapin Hall study focuses on a job placement program here in Cook County, similar studies in other nations could help us tackle the global vulnerabilities of youth aging out of care. The Transitions Initiative seeks to do just that. Keep an eye on IOFA intern Sarah’s updates from Addis Ababa, where she is researching the experiences of youth aging out of care there.


 A sincere thank-you to Amy Dworsky and Judy Havlicek at Chapin Hall – University of Chicago for their research and shared results.

Dworsky, A. & Havlicek, J. (2010). Experiences of Foster Youth in an Employment Training and Job Placement Program. Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of ChicagoPhoto:


Alexa Schnieders

Program Development Intern