Nonprofits – Building skills for a SEAT at the table; Center provides bridge to workforce for young adults

Jennifer Lawrence, SEAT Founder/CEO
Jennifer Lawrence, SEAT Founder/CEO

“Oh, you guys are right on time.”

So the smiling Emanuel McCall greets viewers in one of the introductory YouTube videos on SEAT Center’s website.

They’re big on being on time at SEAT Center. And dressing in the appropriate attire.

But they’re mostly big on serving as a bridge for young people ages 18-24 who may not have graduated from high school on time, or may not have joined the workforce on time.

The Social Enterprise and Training (SEAT) Center is a nonprofit organization mostly funded by the U.S. Department of Labor that provides job training, networking and a chance for a better life for those who are unqualified for many employment opportunities and perhaps unsure of what they want to do — and how the process of getting a job even works.

Holistic approach
The SEAT Center does this through a series of steps that start with recruitment and education, but goes far beyond mere vocational training by exposing young adults in the Capital Region to what it calls a holistic approach that includes “resources to address relationships, money, health and emotional well-being.” Job placement is the final step.

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And it’s important to the SEAT Center to be more than just a place to gain workforce-caliber skills, but to also drive reciprocal benefit to neighborhoods, communities and companies.

“It’s young adults who basically dropped out and don’t know what to do next, or they finished high school but they’re just not really ready for college, not sure what they want to do,” SEAT Center Executive Director Jennifer Lawrence said. “We’re that organization that provides programs to be in that gap.”

“I know exactly what it feels like to have no high school diploma, no GED, no job, plus a criminal record,” McCall says in the video. “That’s why SEAT Center exists, to connect young adults to meaningful work. Our goal is to provide opportunities for you to build your seat at the table.”

Bringing people on board
McCall is now the recruitment coordinator at SEAT Center, whose headquarters are at 131 State St.

The recruitment process includes going door-to-door in neighborhoods all around Schenectady, which has been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic, and has expanded into social media strategies designed to get the word out by any means possible.

“We recruit through community events, partner organizations. But a lot of our young people, we’ve had to really reach into neighborhoods,” Lawrence said. “Because they’re underrepresented; they don’t even know things like this exist.”

What new students can expect to find is a rigorous set of rules, a variety of skills development and a support staff that reaches well beyond the walls of a classroom.

As one woman said in a series of testimonials on the SEAT Center’s website, staff are always a text or phone call away.

Among the training career paths offered by the SEAT Center are culinary arts, emergency medical technician, computer tech and building construction, which focuses on affordable housing projects.

More generally, students are trained to find some level of confidence and self-assuredness in the workforce.

“When they get in, we do a process called Mental Toughness,” Lawrence said. “I always say we’re not yelling and screaming, we’re looking to build you up, building up your attendance, getting used to waking up every day on time and coming in, working as a team, getting used to working with people.

“Most of our students have been pretty disconnected, so now they’re working with a team of about 20 young people. It’s also developing great peer relationships, because now they have a new peer group and they have people they can look to for support.

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“It’s also following directions. We call it taking positive risks and learning something new. You have to be willing to take that positive risk. That’s really what Mental Toughness is.”

SEAT Center was part of the Northeast Parent and Child Society before becoming a separate nonprofit in 2015.

The center submits grant applications to the U.S. Department of Labor every two years and has also been getting some financial support from New York state, supplemented by private corporate sponsors.

Among the numbers the SEAT Center highlights on its site are 96 units of housing improved, more than 16,000 hours of community service, 100% of students obtaining one or more credentials and a 93% job and/or placement rate, which is based on the total number of enrollees, not on the number of graduates.

“So I’m very proud of that number because that means whoever we enrolled, 93% of them were placed at the end of their time with us,” Lawrence said.

“This is actually part of why we became a stand-alone nonprofit. We are 100% competitive grant-funded. So we don’t have any funds year to year that we can count on.”

Eschewing expectations
Lawrence and her organization sometimes encounter skepticism from those who know prospective enrollees and have low expectations for that acquaintance or family member to complete the program, to which she says, “Just send them.”

“We never predetermine or prejudge who this might stick for,” she said.

That includes McCall, who said he was going nowhere with his life, but “fast forward, we sent him to D.C. to be a Young Leader, he went through tons of different training with us,” Lawrence said. “He signed up for literally every single community service activity we did. He’s that person who took every opportunity. You can provide them, but you can’t force people to take them.”

“What does it mean to have a seat at the table?” McCall says in his recruitment video. “It means you have access, connections and opportunity.”

“It meant hope,” one woman said, among the testimonials.

Social Enterprise and Training Center
Year Founded: 2015
Mission: To provide transformative educational and workforce experiences that create a sense of purpose and hope in our communities, and connect business to real-time solutions.”
Areas Served: Capital Region
Quote: “It’s young adults who basically dropped out and don’t know what to do next, or they finished high school but they’re just not really ready for college, not sure what they want to do,” SEAT Center Executive Director Jennifer Lawrence said. “We’re that organization that provides programs to be in that gap.”

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Categories: Life and Arts, Nonprofits 2021

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