Better Way: Give Teens a Chance to Succeed

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Here’s a great strategy two leaders arrived at to give troubled teens a chance to both learn and work without sacrificing anything. It’s a win-win model for education reform.

In the August 18th issue of Forbes, Christopher Helman tells the story of Georgia-based Southwire, a plant which recruits teens from among the lowest performers in the county’s school system,  to engage in meaningful work, while simultaneously completing High School. We’re talking about teens who are raising her own siblings, because her parents are deceased, or are on their own, now pregnant at 16 with parents were sent to prison on drug charges. With hope, these young people suddenly have goals, like “finish(ing) high school and get my diploma and hopefully go to college to get my nursing degree started.”  As one quality control 17 year old said: “I love working here. I used to work in fast food. The pay is better here and the atmosphere is much better.” Students work 4 hour shifts daily with starting pay at $8 per hour.

The program is called “12 for Life”; the idea: finish 12th grade as the first step toward a better life. Only students who do NOT have good attendance and good grades are eligible for this program enthusiastically supported by Stu Thorn, the CEO of Southwire, one of the world’s biggest wire manufacturers. Founded, in 2007. the kids work in the factory for part of the day and spend the rest in classrooms earning High school diplomas.

Since the launch of the program the district’s drop out rate plunged from 35% to 22%. A total of 851 kids have graduated, and 40% of them have gone to college! As Harvard Business school’s Jan Rivkin who has studied the program concludes, “ It’s a remarkable win-win-win. Students are graduating, the school system loves it, and the company makes money.”

Southwire was started in 1937 and today has $5.5 B in sales, and operates 20 factories in the US and Mexico. Indeed, Southwire invested $4M to get the program started, including $2.4M to buy the building and $700,000 to build out the classrooms. The school district contributes teachers and transportation. Southwire expects to generate $1.7 M in pretax profit.

Why did the company begin this program some seven years ago? Because the school systems have gotten away from teaching vocational training and focused on getting them into college, which really doesn’t meet the needs of many kids whose circumstances have torn large holes in the traditional social fabric and they are falling through.  Georgia, in its wisdom, is no spurring other manufacturers to replicate the success through the great Promise Partnership, a non profit that Thorn chairs. So far, 33 sites have smaller versions of the 12 for Life program.

Such programs clearly offer a Better Way to help these troubled teens have hope to pull themselves up and launch meaningful careers and lives.  What is your country, city, state doing to create win-win programs? What is YOUR company doing?  And, as Mentor Our Kids asks parents of all teenagers who wish their children could have meaningful internships – what are you doing within your own companies to help other teenagers?! Get involved and set an example.

And share with us other Better Way programs you know about!