"I already know what it's like to be homeless, hungry, and abused," said Carmen Williams, 22, weeping Wednesday as she spoke at a breakfast meeting of educators and business people at Community College of Philadelphia.
Now Williams, a single mother and college student, is learning what it's like to be a success, en route to a promotion to shift manager at Starbucks.
"Take your time, honey, take your time," murmured someone in the group, as an academic meeting suddenly turned achingly personal.
"I'm really happy to be in a room with people who want to invest in young people, who can see our potential," she said.
In a way, Williams can stand as a model for what is possible for young people, 18 to 24, who are unconnected to school or work when their peers are building futures.
In two unrelated meetings Wednesday, one at the college, the other at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, educators, employers, and work development professionals discussed what it takes to bring disconnected people such as Williams into the workforce.
On a big-picture level, it takes the ability to show young people a career path, so that someone such as Williams can see the opportunities after entry-level jobs.
It also takes patience, a willingness to go beyond job training, and an understanding of challenges that these young people, euphemistically labeled "opportunity youth," face.
"We don't want to be the stereotype," Williams said. "We want more, but we don't know how to get it."
In Philadelphia, there are 43,000 potential Carmen Williamses, or one in four of all young people age 18 to 24. Nationally, it's about one in five in that age group, or nearly five million, based on work by Drexel University labor economist Paul Harrington.
At both gatherings, the goal was to encourage employers to be involved.
The longer meeting, at the Philadelphia Federal Reserve, focused on apprenticeships, combining several years of classroom learning with paid on-the-job training.
Ideally, programs would provide an industry-recognized certification and/or a link to a community college education. They would be preceded by pre-apprentice programs at the high school level to hone math and reading skills.
"There is a business case for apprenticeships," said Mark Edwards, chief executive of Philadelphia Works, a local agency that funnels government workforce dollars into training and job search help for the unemployed.
"It's not just community service work or being a good corporate citizen," he said at the Federal Reserve gathering.
Employers can pay lower wages while the apprentices gain skills. Companies create a pipeline to fill vacancies while reducing turnover and building loyalty, he said.
Still, there are challenges, employers said, during breaks in both programs.
James Clark, training coordinator at Philly Shipyard Inc., said half of the young applicants who took a screening test in basic math skills failed.
"I can teach welding," he said, "but I can't teach math and reading."
What excited him about Wednesday's session at the Federal Reserve was learning about South Carolina's state tax credit of $1,000 a year, per apprentice. Clark said a tax credit would help Philly Shipyard offset the $300,000 it pays each year for college credits for the 55 young people enrolled in its apprenticeship program.
Shannon Phillips, regional director of Starbucks, said that "you have to have the right leadership in place who are willing to take on the extra challenges." Training mentors is key, she said.
Sometimes it's basic, said Jeff Brown, owner of several area ShopRite supermarkets.
Why were the young employees so blase about being late? he wondered. Then, one young employee asked him why it mattered. If he was late clocking in, ShopRite didn't have to pay him, so what was the harm?
Brown saw the logic. But it taught him that he had to explain business fundamentals, how stores need a certain number of workers on duty to help customers and how one employee's lateness could keep another from leaving on time to pick up a child or get to a meeting.
Brown said he takes a chance on young people who have been incarcerated.
"Some of them have real business skills that they learned selling drugs," he said. "If you sell anything, you learn salesmanship, client relations, math. You have to count right. A lot of them we send into management more quickly because of their business savvy."