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.