Youth + Jobs: A Pathway Out of Poverty, Incarceration, and Violence

By Caitlin Schnur, Workforce Research and Policy Fellow, NTJN


Photo Credit: Mark Morelli

Serving communities in the Greater Boston area as well as Springfield, MA, Roca, Inc.’s mission is clear: to help at-risk youth currently on a path toward prison overcome violence and poverty.  Committed to shaping a future in which the highest-risk young people can succeed in their communities rather than being locked into the criminal justice system, Roca primarily targets 17 to 24-year-old men who are at a high risk of adult incarceration.  One of Roca’s central components is its Transitional Jobs (TJ) programming, which offers youth subsidized jobs primarily in general maintenance, custodial work, and landscaping sectors (as well as some work in culinary arts and manufacturing) to prepare them for unsubsidized employment.

Recently selected to lead a $27 million social impact financing initiative to reduce recidivism among at-risk youth in Massachusetts, Roca’s work is poised to become a model for the rest of the country. In this interview, Roca’s Chief Strategy and Administrative Officer, Lili Elkins, shares why it’s important to help high-risk youth get and keep jobs, describes why TJ is an effective employment program model for Roca participants, and explains why repeated failure can be a good thing.

NTJN: Who is Roca’s target service population?  What challenges does this population face, and why is it critical to reach them?

Lili Elkins: Roca’s target population is predominantly very high-risk, criminally-involved young men who are unwilling or unable to engage in traditional programming. So, if you can come into our office and show up for services every day, you’re actually not for us!  We’re looking for the young people that we have to go out, locate, and bring into services—so really the high-risk youth population that many other programs aren’t able to engage.

In terms of challenges, these young men are all criminally involved and many already have felony charges, few have high school diplomas or GEDs, and the vast majority have no significant work history. These young men are beyond just being disengaged from school and work—they’re on track for adult incarceration, and it’s critical to reach them before that happens. Unfortunately, without targeted interventions that provide these high-risk youth with tangible alternatives, they are the young men who are most likely to engage in violent and harmful behaviors in their communities as well as be victims of violence themselves.

NTJN: One of Roca’s goals is to help high-risk youth prepare for and succeed in employment.  Why is this important?

Lili Elkins: Employment is a critical tool to supporting behavior change. Put simply, employment is important because the youth we serve will not stay out of prison unless they can become and remain employed. These young men need a viable, positive alternative to engaging in the high-risk behaviors that are likely to lead to their incarceration—and one key positive alternative is employment. Roca is committed to helping high-risk youth prepare for and succeed in paid work because we know that we can’t expect these young men to change, earn money in the legal labor market, and to stay out of prison if they don’t have the opportunity to learn how to work and ultimately get and keep a job.


Photo Credit: Mark Morelli

NTJN: Roca uses a Transitional Jobs (TJ) strategy to help its participants overcome barriers to employment so they enter and advance in the labor market.   Why is TJ an effective employment program model for the youth Roca serves?

Lili Elkins: Roca serves young people most of whom have never worked in the legal labor market, have never experienced work at all, or who have never had work modeled positively for them by the peers or adults in their lives.  The TJ model is effective for our youth because it provides them with these opportunities.

One of the most important aspects of the TJ model is that it gives our youth a space to make mistakes and then learn from those mistakes. At Roca, we use TJ as a tool to help coach youth around behavior change. For example, our participants can get fired from our TJ program multiple times, and most young people do. We let our youth use being fired from TJ as an opportunity to think through, understand, and address the behaviors that resulted in their termination—and then we let them go through a “rehiring” process and be brought back into TJ so they can try again.  This rehiring process allows us to use tools from motivational interviewing, cognitive behavioral therapy, and restorative justice to work with young people to change the negative behaviors that are preventing them from successfully staying employed.

It can take many of our young people 15 to 18 months to achieve 60 days of consecutive employment, which is one of our key benchmarks for being ready, or almost ready, to transition into an unsubsidized job.  The TJ model offers the flexibility to give our youth the time, structure, and support they need to succeed in employment—including the opportunity to cycle in and out of employment until they can stick with it and get it right!

NTJN: What’s the single most important thing Roca does to provide effective employment services to young people?

Lili Elkins: That’s a hard question! I think that what makes Roca’s employment services effective is that we’re willing to let our young TJ participants fail, and then learn from their failure, over and over again. This type of experiential learning is predicated on the idea that positive behavioral change occurs in stages—it’s a process, and a part of that process is learning from mistakes. At Roca, we meet our youth at whatever stage they’re at in the process of behavioral change, and we work and stick with them through that change process.  For me, it’s Roca’s attention to this process that makes us unique—and that’s critical to our youth’s success.

Like what you read?
Read about Roca’s great work in this recent piece from The New York Times.
Learn more about Social Impact Bonds with this useful factsheet.
Find out all about the Massachusetts Juvenile Justice Pay for Success Initiative through this press release.


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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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