On a humid June morning, I paid a visit to Café Reconcile in New Orleans’ quiet Central City neighborhood. From the sidewalk, Café Reconcile looks like another neighborhood restaurant in New Orleans – but this one has a special purpose.
Located in a historic five-story brick building, hundreds of young people pass through the doors each year to train for jobs in the city’s hospitality industry. The program is geared to students from underserved communities. A majority are African Americans, 18 to 24, who are out of school and unemployed – what advocates often call “opportunity youth” to highlight the economic potential they represent. Some have unstable housing, receive food stamps, are uninsured or have disabilities. Despite such challenges, these students display resilience, talent and a sense of humor. Family and community connections helped them through tough times, including Katrina, and brought them to this program in hopes of finding good jobs in the hospitality industry.
At 8:00 a.m., sleepy students walk through the backdoor one-by-one. They give each other high-fives before going to their lockers to don uniforms and hairnets. The aroma of frying bacon fills the kitchen, and Chef Joe is shouting out to add butter to a pan of grits. Holding hands in the glass-enclosed dining room, the students and teachers offer praises and prayer. One student thanks the group for supporting him yesterday though a rough patch. “The morning prayer is a sort of temperature check for the day,” explains Kathy Litchfield, employment manager at Café Reconcile.
After eight weeks at Café Reconcile students will be placed in an externship and begin earning money as line cooks, runners and assistant servers. “[The Café Reconcile structure] is a fast model,” explains Litchfield. “We’re trying to get our students to paychecks. Keeping lights on, supporting their families. I tell my kids, I can generally get you out the door. Once you’re out the door, that’s on you and you can do it.”
Café Reconcile reports that approximately 65 percent of students enrolled in the program are hired or in school within one month of completion. It also reports that 90 percent of graduates from the previous year remain employed or in school for one year following placement. The program offers extensive formal and informal support. Students receive bus tokens, breakfasts, psychosocial evaluations, mental health counseling, mentoring and lots of gentle encouragement. Life skills classes drill home employment basics: Be on time. Smile. Don’t panic. Work on your weaknesses. Don’t quit a job until you have another one lined up.
Even after graduation, Café Reconcile nurtures its community. Jeffery Vannor, who graduated in 2005, now works as an alumni coordinator. He sees his job as following up with students who feel lost. Vannor has the phone numbers of many alumni, calls them weekly, and when he hears someone hasn’t showed up for a shift follows up with a face-to-face check-in with the student. Vannor is a trusted peer for these young people, and this sort of post-graduate support can continue for six years after students graduate. “Café Reconcile is all about giving people a second chance,” says Vannor.
There are around 7,000 opportunity youth – or 14 percent of youth – in New Orleans, according to research by the Cowen Institute. The effects of youth disconnection have been shown to follow individuals for the rest of their lives, resulting in lower incomes, higher unemployment rates and negative physical and mental health outcomes. There is a broad effort to address this issue in New Orleans and surrounding parishes at a systematic level. The New Orleans ecosystem includes providers who work with youth, as well as urban farms, hospitality certifications and apprenticeships, the workforce development board, and a robust network of funders, including the Hilton Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana and Baptist Community Ministries. Working together, these organizations are aligning their efforts to change the life-course of New Orleans’ young people.
“For so long this population of young people have suffered the ripple effects of youth disconnection, disconnected from educational and gainful employment opportunities,” explains Ryan Dalton, program coordinator with the Reconnecting Opportunity Youth team and an alum of Café Reconcile himself. “In spite of their disadvantages, social inequities and adversities, these young people still aspire to do great things and obtain success. Their resiliency and life experiences enables them to learn, grow and contribute to society for beyond imagination, if only potential was met with chance and opportunity,” said Dalton.
The hospitality industry, which includes restaurants and hotels, has characteristics that make it a good fit for disconnected youth looking to improve their lives. Hospitality is an industry that has low barriers to entry. Employers often provide professional development for their workers and promote from within at rates that are higher than other industries. Customer service skills are transferable, and there exists a sort of natural career ladder in hospitality, or what workforce development experts like to call a “career pathway.” From entry-level positions, workers can earn community college certificates, improve their skills and eventually move to better paid positions.
In 2015, the Hilton Foundation embarked on a new funding strategy for hospitality workforce development. The Foundation needed to decide where to focus its efforts. Researchers encouraged the Foundation to invest in markets that that have both a large hospitality industry as well as above average rates of economic distress. As a result, we learned that hospitality is not only the largest employer in New Orleans, but there are extensive hospitality-specific opportunities due to New Orleans’ massive visitor rates in recent years. Due to its popularity as a destination and the challenges many of its youth face, New Orleans is especially poised for workforce development programs in this sector.
Another youth development provider in New Orleans, Liberty’s Kitchen, not only trains its graduates for entry-level positions in the industry, but also supports them in career development so that youth continue to obtain better jobs with higher wages over time– even if that process sometime means leaving hospitality for other industries.
“When you come from a middle class background, you have people who are placing bets on you throughout your life,” explains Harry Schnur, director of development at Liberty’s Kitchen. “You’re being encouraged to try things. If you fail, people tell you that’s okay and encourage you to try again. The problem we see is that so many of our students not only don’t have anyone betting on them, they actually face a system that is actively betting against them.”
Workers need jobs. The hospitality industry also needs workers. Turnover and retention can be industry challenges; yet, there are a projected 30,000 job openings over the next 10 years in New Orleans alone; and nearly 23 percent of these will be middle- or high-skill jobs.
Back at Café Reconcile, the lunch shift is wrapping up. As the students relax, smile, and wipe down the tables, it is clear that they are gaining not only job skills, but a sense of community, connectedness and confidence.
“We work with exceptionally capable and hardworking young people and we point them in a direction that is accessible and reduces barriers,” remarks Litchfield. “It’s not that they can’t work or don’t want to work, it’s the other stuff in life that’s challenging, and there is a whole community that is working on that.”