When she dropped out of high school in her sophomore year, Denise Friason knew that finding a job might be tough. She didn't realize how tough. ''You get the feeling very fast that because you don't have a diploma, you're dumb and nobody wants you - I was like a zero,'' she recalls. ''I could never even get a job interview.''
That was before she turned to an independent organization called Jobs for Youth, which caters exclusively to helping high-school dropouts from economically disadvantaged families find entry-level jobs.
After working with Denise for several weeks (''they taught me what to say to an employer and made me feel much better about myself''), the agency arranged an interview for her with Chicago's Continental Bank. She got a part-time job as a check processor (''I love it'') and has since enrolled in Jobs for Youth afternoon classes to earn the equivalent of a high-school diploma.
The minority youth unemployment rate is currently almost double that of youth in general. Dropping out of school before graduation - a practice among 50 percent of Chicago high-school students - tends to make the challenge of ever landing a job even greater. This group, with little job experience, few if any skills, and often lacking such signs of stability as a permanent address and telephone, traditionally ranks at the bottom of the unemployment ladder - even in the best of times.
Yet Chicago's Jobs for Youth, which started as a federally funded project four years ago and has sister agencies in Boston and New York, has managed even during the recession to place a steady 400 dropouts a year in unsubsidized, private-sector jobs.
''Believe me - we've worked at it,'' insists executive director John Connelly.
The agency, which is now chiefly funded by corporations and foundations and which recruited more than half of its 60 donors just during the last year, has worked steadily to expand its base of employers just to keep its placement record constant. It now works closely with about 150 employers and pairs its clients with jobs ranging from dishwasher and file clerk to maintenance worker and waitress.
Willingness to work is key. ''There's no such thing as a kid that can't be placed if he wants to work,'' says Jobs for Youth counselor Chris Luecke. Yet about half those who walk through the agency's doors on the 19th floor of the South Loop office building are not really interested enough to make it through a required one-week workshop which precedes any counseling and job interviews. Some return to school or find jobs on their own. Others hit the streets once again. Similarly, anyone using drugs or in trouble with the law is not indulged.
''We're not in the business of rehabilitating young people - we're trying to deliver on a promise of helping them find jobs,'' insists Dr. Connelly, who compares the agency's task to that of a supportive ''Dutch Uncle'' who helps, but doesn't do all the work.
While no one is pushed into a job he is unwilling to take, occasional coaxing is considered acceptable.
''At 16 it's tough to get a job anywhere - I mowed lawns,'' explains Connelly. ''A lot of people feel fast-food jobs are a dead end.'' Some refuse to take the jobs.
''But most young people need experience and a job record. If we feel it's a good opportunity, our task is to convince the client of it. We may say, 'Write down a list of the other opportunities you have.' That usually does the trick.''
In order to encourage employers who much prefer to hire high-school graduates , Jobs for Youth sometimes pledges to tutor a new employee for the General Equivalency Degree (GED) tests. Those who know their jobs depend on it generally turn up for classes.
What gives Jobs for Youth special added value in the eyes of both clients and employers is its pledge to follow up on anyone placed for a full two years. The new employee is encouraged to call his counselor whenever trouble arises or the itch for a promotion sets in.
One department-store maintenance man, concerned about his future as he watched a wave of layoffs, asked Jobs for Youth to make a phone inquiry about his status. The young man was not only kept on, but has since been promoted, and now earns about five times the hourly wage he started at.
Employers, too, like the constant contact and often confide in agency job developers when things are not going well.
''It keeps us one step ahead - we can try to work it out before it costs the client his job,'' notes agency counselor Mickki Pearson.
The agency's professional approach has persuaded several Chicago businesses to hire dropouts nurtured by Jobs for Youth and to make sizeable dollar contributions as well. ''Their record is just so good,'' notes Carolyn Bergan of Continental Bank.
In addition to thinking through their own interests and assets and what any employer will expect of them, they are encouraged by agency counselors to be on time for interviews, to speak without slang and without mumbling, and not to discuss salaries or beg for the job. Discipline is a must.
Still, for all the challenges, Jobs for Youth workers say the rewards are large. One young man from a family of nine, who dropped out of school to get work when his father was laid off, is working for his GED even as he holds two full-time jobs - as a crew chief at McDonald's and as a grocery-store stockboy. He says he loves to work and is ''too tired to get into trouble.''
Mrs. Pearson says another young man was initially glib, spoke with streetwise slang, and approached the agency with an attitude that the world owed him a living. But since then he's taken a job with an auto retail center where he greets the public, has dropped the slang, and has evolved into a poised and patient young worker.
''I've seen a transformation of character in almost every case we've handled, '' says Chris Luecke.