Each time someone received a job offer, the sounds of go-go music played at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. That uniquely Washington beat played over and over again. Hundreds of times.
Companies such as Starbucks and Five Guys doled out job offers on the spot last week to people ages 16 to 24 in the Washington region. A large portion of those people were both out of work and out of school. About 5,000 teens and young adults attended the D.C. Opportunity Fair, with Hilton, Nordstrom, FedEx and the U.S. Postal Service among about 30 employers hoping to add young Washingtonians to their ranks.
“I called my mom as soon as I got the job, and she was happier than I was,” said Nyle Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old high school senior who was offered a job as a Starbucks barista and plans to keep the job after graduation. “I need this job. And I wanted a job so I could feel that sense of maturity and independence.”
The fair was part of the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, a component of a program spearheaded by Starbucks founder Howard Schultz. It now aims to hire 1 million young people across the country by 2020 who are both out of work and out of school.
Some job fair attendees said they had in the past applied for many positions but never heard back from employers. Some dropped out of college for financial reasons and needed to earn money before returning to school. Some were teenage mothers who wanted to support their families. Others had minimum-wage jobs with no potential for growth.
“Hopefully, I can find a company here that I can grow with,” said bow-tie-wearing Markiel Jones, 24, who is unemployed after dropping out of college for financial reasons.
The Prince George’s County resident graduated from high school and went on to attend the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. After low-paying jobs in the food-service industry that showed little promise for growth, he landed a Starbucks job offer and learned about the company’s tuition assistance for employees seeking higher education.
“This job is important so I can go back to school,” Jones said.
The national unemployment rate in the 16-to-24 age range was nearly 10 percent this summer, compared with 4.4 percent among all ages, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The agency reported that 16.2 percent of young black residents nationally were unemployed, more than twice the rate of whites.
The Opportunities Initiative fair estimates that there are 70,000 people in that young age bracket in the D.C. region who are neither in school nor working — a statistic that disproportionately affects minority residents.
Schultz said these job seekers, whom the initiative dubs “opportunity youth,” are “fantastic” employees with higher retention rates than other workers. Starbucks pairs its Opportunity Initiative hires with mentors and tracks their success.
Schultz said he personally interviewed applicants at the job fair but never revealed that he’s the executive chairman of the world’s largest coffee chain. He eased the young job seekers into the interview by asking them to tell him their life stories.
“We know that if these young people between 16 and 24 don’t get that job or first opportunity, they can be a little lost,” Schultz said. “The future of the country is in the hands of these young people.”
The event felt more like a celebration than a typical staid job fair. Loud music played in the background, and a drummer performed in the center of the room. Bright colors and lights adorned the convention center, and a red carpet greeted job seekers as they entered. Nordstrom and Goodwill fitted people in free work attire.
Those who received a job offer still must be vetted by each employer’s human resources department.
“It’s been a good, diverse group here today. People are interested in a little of everything,” said Kevin Brown, a terminal manager at a FedEx freight center in Annapolis that is looking to fill 34 entry-level jobs. “It’s great to see young, hungry individuals.”
The fair had computer stations for attendees to work on résumés and finish applications to submit to employers. Volunteers conducted practice interviews with applicants before they began formal interviews.
Javon Brown, 17, skipped school to attend the job fair. He said he wants to attend college next year and needs to earn money to pay for it. He printed his résumé at the fair and participated in a practice interview, learning the importance of a firm handshake and eye contact.
He took that advice to a Five Guys recruiter and landed an offer.
“I’m hoping to wow them with the skills that I have,” Brown said.
Tables at the fair had pamphlets and representatives who could inform participants about transportation, child care, food and financial aid resources. Volunteers also helped those with criminal records who needed assistance in navigating the job market.
Among the hopeful applicants and employers, former U.S. attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr., a D.C. resident, mingled with job seekers. His law firm represents Starbucks, and he said he stopped by because he believes in the mission of the fair.
As attorney general in the Obama administration, he said, he worked on federal programs that helped former inmates transition to society. Job fairs like these, he said, play a big role in helping people become productive citizens after serving a sentence.
“This is what corporate America needs to be doing on a larger scale,” he said. “They’re helping themselves while they’re helping these young people.”
As Holder and the thousands of attendees scurried around the convention center, the repeated sounds of that go-go beat could be heard in the background.
Another beat, another job offer secured.