Making a high school graduate someone you'd want to hire

Barry De Franco got a job. That's no small accomplishment.

A survey of local businesses taken by First National Bank of Boston showed that recent high-school graduates like Barry are often held back by poor job skills, attitude problems, and high turnover. This, coupled with a tight economy , makes many employers balk at hiring high-school graduates.

About 75 percent of those surveyed aren't recruiting at high schools to fill entry-level jobs, says James Howell, the bank's chief economist.

A year ago Barry, then a high school senior in Quincy, Mass., was ''hanging around the street corners, going nowhere, really.'' Now he's working as a bank teller.

And with teen-age unemployment in some areas topping 50 percent, he may be one of a fortunate few. But Barry and 4,200 1982 graduates are being helped by a youth employment program that has enlisted to change that.

The program is Jobs for America's Graduates Inc. (JAG), a Washington-based, nonprofit umbrella organization overseeing eight test sites that prepare high school seniors with the ''pre-employment'' skills they need to get - and keep - their first job.

''We do it through concrete, no-nonsense things,''says Bebe Coker, director of administration of Jobs for Delaware Graduates, the first test site. ''We tell them 'take the braids out of your hair. Take a fountain pen to appointments. . . . Shake hands.' '' And, she adds, the students learn how to work with others in a group.

It's cheap. At an average cost of $1,400 per student placement, including a nine-month follow-up, it runs circles around a now-defunct CETA program, which cost $6,000 per person for a 90-day period.

And it's working: Karla Milanette, JAG director of technical assistance, says 86 percent of the 9,000 participants to date have found jobs in such fields as retail, fast food, food management, banking, secretarial, bench work in the computer industry, and production-line work. Some of those also joined the military or went to college.

Jobs for Delaware Graduates was started in 1979 by Delaware Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV as a means of easing that state's high teen-age unemployment. When governors and businessmen in other states heard about Delaware's 85 percent placement rate its first year, they wanted in. Now, 73 schools in Michigan, Virginia, Massachusetts, Tennessee, Arizona, Missouri, and Ohio participate.

The program focuses on several key points:

* It identifies students, before they graduate, who are most likely to become unemployed. Joining the program is a voluntary commitment.

* Trained ''job specialists'' work ''before, during, and after school and at night'' with the students, says Bruce Stokes, former director of the Massachusetts test site, Jobs for Bay State Graduates. They provide career counseling and advice for 30 to 40 current students, follow up on last year's flock, and peddle the program to potential employers.

* Career development seminars instill civic responsibility, says Ms. Coker. Students elect officers, and compete in intermural contests of public speaking, consumer math, and career vocabulary. Businesses are invited to attend these contests.

* Post-graduation career associations help the new employees learn how open a bank account, get promoted, ask for a raise.

And businesses are biting.

The Coca Cola-Dr Pepper Bottling Company of Memphis had stopped hiring high school graduates, according to its personnel director, Buddy Donaldson. But since a job specialist approached him two years ago about the program, he's hired 30 participants of Jobs for High School Graduates. ''We're satisfied with all of them,'' he says. ''In fact, I don't hire young adults now unless they've done the program.''

In North Quincy, Mass., Boston Financial Data Services Inc. has hired 15 youths with Jobs for Bay State Graduates in the last two years. Personnel recruiter Donna Davis says: ''These kids are a decidedly different type of person than I'm used to seeing. They thank you for your time. They have their priorities straight.''

Keeping the job is one priority: Between 74 and 95 percent have retained their job for a year, says Mrs. Milanette.

Businesses give JAG high marks ''because it is not a government program,'' says Kenneth Smith, president of the organization. The Department of Labor provides some funds, but most is raised by local boards of trustees from private sources.

The local boards are made up of leaders of business, politics, education, and labor. ''The success has been in getting the leadership of the states to take responsibility for the program and holding the job specialists responsible for getting jobs,'' says Mr. Smith. ''There is a chain of accountability that extends down to the kids getting and keeping their jobs. That's something you can't get from a federal program.''

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