During the height of the economic downturn, when youth unemployment soared over 20 percent in California, Vincene Jones heard teenagers talking about how badly they wanted jobs.
The head of the city of Sacramento’s Neighborhood Services Division, Jones decided she just might be able to help. She pitched the idea of a job fair to her staff in 2009, and they quickly got it rolling. On Saturday, the city will hold its eighth annual Youth Job Fair from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. right outside City Hall, 915 I St., in downtown Sacramento.
After last year’s event, Jones said, 333 young people were able to get work. Hundreds of others got the experience of meeting recruiters and learning what they needed to do to be stronger candidates. Jones said 30 employers – including Wendy’s, Goodwill and Wal-Mart – will have candidates fill out applications and may do on-the-spot interviews.
Jobs with those employers may not sound too glamorous to young people, but companies just like these have been shaping U.S. business leaders for many generations. Ann Madden Rice, chief executive officer for UC Davis Medical Center, now has responsibility for more than 8,000 employees, an acute-care teaching hospital with 619 beds, an annual budget of more than $1.7 billion and medical clinics in 11 California communities.
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But at 16, she was a kitchen worker at what is now Mercy Medical Center – North Iowa. That experience, she said, taught her that every job in the hospital supports patients. Her advice to young people: “Convey a positive attitude; stress that you are willing to learn.”
One of Rice’s colleagues, Heather Young, told me that her first job was the key to unlocking future opportunities. Young is now the founding dean of the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing at the University of California, Davis, but at 16, she was serving lunch to employees at a biotech company in Silicon Valley.
“I thought I was getting a temporary job, but it led to opportunities to work for several years, and ultimately helped me to choose my major in college (nutrition),” Young told me. Her advice: Practice how you present yourself with friends or family who can give you feedback. Practice how you will describe your interests and strengths so you are ready to share information that will help you get the job.
Over at Dignity Health, Edmundo Castañeda leads both Mercy General Hospital and Mercy Hospital of Folsom. Mercy General alone has 342 beds, a physician staff of more than 800 and is the highest-volume cardiac procedure hospital in California. Castañeda’s first job was as a busboy at Bella Napoli Italian Restaurant in El Paso, Texas. That job, he said, taught him that hard work and commitment are essential to success.
Castañeda’s advice: “Don’t be overly focused on a specific job initially. No matter what you do, your first job is an opportunity to learn.”
Like Castañeda, Rice and Young, Gary Strong also started out in food services. Strong, formerly the senior vice president at The Sacramento Bee, is now CEO of the Gold Country Region of the American Red Cross. He leads nearly 2,800 volunteers and 35 employees who respond to roughly 800 local disasters each year and serve close to 5 million residents in this 24-county region.
His first job, however, was flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Within one summer, the 17-year-old Strong rose to the position of production caller, responsible for gauging the flow of customers at the McDonald’s that then had the highest transaction volume in the nation.
“It was in Westwood, right outside UCLA, so they have all those movie theaters,” Strong said. “Everybody would leave the theaters and come in and get a bag of fries or a soda or whatever. The lines were just out past the end of the building.”
Strong said the position taught him the value of planning, because if he didn’t ramp up production at the right time, it meant long waits and unhappy customers. He also learned to work with people from many different walks of life, he said. The owner was an immigrant, and the employees ranged in age from teens with first-time jobs to retirees trying to pick up a little extra income.
McDonald’s gave Jones her second job. Her first was checking in guests at YWCA lodging in her hometown of Washington, D.C., but when she went off to college at Virginia Union University in Richmond, Va., it was McDonald’s that gave her the job that helped her pay for college and provided many a free or discounted meal.
Access to cash and food is just as critical for young people today, Jones said. According to an analysis of census data by the Employment Policies Institute in 2014, the nation’s largest metropolitan areas have youth unemployment far above the national average of 21.6 percent. Sacramento ranked ninth in that report at 32.1 percent.