BILLINGS — It all started, improbably, with Pope Francis.
Brian Khan, a Helena resident and host of the Montana Public Radio program “Home Ground” heard Francis speak in a 2013 interview about distressingly high unemployment among teenagers and 20-somethings and the growing isolation of the elderly.
Pope Francis worried that as a society “we were throwing kids away,” Kahn said. “I thought, ‘What could we do to change it?'”
As it turns out, a lot.
Kahn, along with a large group of lawmakers, thinkers, educational experts and business leaders, has drawn up a plan to help every high school student after graduation perform meaningful service, gain real-world work skills and find placement in a good job. For graduates who want to pursue higher education, there’s a component that helps make it more affordable.
“It’s a New Deal for our kids,” Kahn said. “It’s putting together the best that we know and applying it.”
Dozens of Montanans from diverse backgrounds have thrown their support behind the plan, including Waded Cruzado, president of Montana State University and Beth Weatherby, chancellor of Montana Western University. Bob Brown, who served as Montana secretary of state from 2000-2004 and Dale Bosworth, retired U.S. Forest Service chief, have signed on. Jenny Eck, the minority leader in the state House of Representatives, and Jono McKinney, CEO of the Montana Conservation Corps, are also proponents.
The plan focuses specifically on helping teens acquire the skills that are vital for a future workforce. It would also help Montana develop and keep a skilled workforce in the state, rather than losing Montana graduates to jobs in other parts of the country, Kahn said.
Known as “American Jobs for American Youth: A Montana Proposal to the Nation,” the proposal guarantees a job at a living wage for every high school graduate who wants one.
In order to be eligible for the job, grads must sign up for a year of post-high school national service. It could be anything from a certified apprenticeship to military service to stints with the Peace Corps or Americorps.
The idea is that the year of service will teach teens responsibility, face-to-face communication skills, work ethic and the virtue of serving something bigger than themselves. Upon completion, they’d then be eligible for full-time employment.
“We guarantee you a job at a living wage,” Kahn said.
Part of the push to help young Montanans find a job comes from need. Employers are finding it more difficult to hire experienced workers as many teenagers leave high school without ever having worked a job.
According to a 2015 study from Pew Research Center, fewer teenagers are working now than ever before. In 2014, 32 percent of American teenagers held some kind of after school or summer job. That’s down from 58 percent in 1978, the high-water mark for teen employment.
Bryan and Susie Layton know a bit about employing teenagers. The couple owns the Great Harvest Bread Co. franchise on Poly Drive in Billings and has long employed high-schoolers, relying on them for after-school and evening work.
They love their teenagers but acknowledge that employing them comes with special challenges.
“Teenagers are capable of a lot,” Susie Layton said. Parents need to “give them opportunities and tell them they’re capable.”
Too often not enough is expected of them and they miss opportunities to live up to their potential, she said. Parents, educators and employers can do a lot to help teens become effective, reliable workers by simply raising their expectations for what teens can do. Because too often, they come looking for a job without the skills they need to be successful, she said.
Bryan Layton applauds those teens who excel at their studies or who compete at the top of their high school sport or have earned their spot in band or orchestra. It takes a lot of work and they’re typically busy running between school and practice and games and concerts.
“We see a lot of teenagers who are busy doing a lot of great things,” Bryan Layton said. “But being busy doesn’t teach you how to work.”
As an example, Susie Layton recalled a new employee who was tasked with cleaning the store’s glass door and windows a week into the job. She was given a spray bottle with cleaner and a cloth. After a few minutes of uncertainty she turned to her supervisor to ask if she was supposed to spray the cleaner on the glass or on the cloth.
Parents who can give their kids simple chores and responsibilities at a young age will teach them basic skills that will translate directly to the workplace, Susie Layton said. The learning and growing that then takes place once teenagers find a job will help them find the self-confidence and sense of accomplishment they’ll need to be successful as adults, she said.
And that can mean skipping a family trip or dropping out of an activity so that the teen has a chance to work.
“Sometimes kids have to miss things and that’s real life,” Susie Layton said.
Part of “American Jobs for American Youth” calls for bolstering early childhood education, an investment to make sure kids keep pace academically as they enter school to ensure more of them graduate at the end of high school.
The plan doesn’t work if these kids can’t graduate from high school, Kahn said.
The early childhood education component, which calls for universal access to preschool and community-based parent counseling programs, is also the most expensive part of the proposal, which carries a total estimated cost of $39 billion.
Kahn sees it as an investment and, he pointed out, it creates an opening for partnerships.
“It’s a great opportunity for businesses to step up,” he said.
The plan also creates an opportunity to address Pope Francis’ other concern and help engage senior citizens. The plan calls for a mentor program that would connect youth with the elderly, drawing both groups out and creating ways for each to benefit from what the other has to offer.
Mentoring is vital to the program, Kahn said. It gives students the perspective of someone who has a lifetime of knowledge and experience, and it creates a secondary support system for the student.
“It matters to kids to have that kind of support,” Kahn said.
Support makes all the difference, said Bryan Layton.
It’s one of the reasons he and Susie are such advocates of parents encouraging their kids to get out and work. The best teenage employees are the ones who are driven and have the confidence to fail.
“If they’re afraid of failure, then they’re afraid to try something like this,” he said, pointing to his employees working with customers in front and building salads and sandwiches in back.
“Work at this age really does matter,” Susie Layton said.