TWENTY-ONE-year-old Karisma Kelley says she used to "sleep all day and hang out all night" before she entered New York City's Young Adult Learning Academy (YALA).
Today, the high school dropout is studying for her upcoming general equivalency diploma (GED) and plans to take a college preparatory course over the summer.
Where she lives in Harlem, Ms. Kelley and a young niece under her care "don't go outside," she says. "There's nothing really out there but drugs." At YALA she found a very different environment. "I feel like a whole lot is lifted off of me. There's not as much stress, and that helps me apply myself. This program gave me a second chance ... it's helping me get where I want to be."
For many out-of-work, out-of-school youths in New York City and across the country, government and privately funded programs such as YALA provide basic skills, education, vocational training, and even employment.
Participants range from those in the "at risk" category - the poverty stricken, ex-convicts, former drug addicts, and teenage mothers - to the more fortunate who need help navigating from the classroom to a job.
Experts say such services are needed now more than ever, as the number of high school dropouts soars, approaching 40 percent of students in New York City alone, and college graduates - youths with the best job prospects - swell unemployment rolls.
"Historically, federal programs have recruited those who are easier to place" in jobs because government contractors who run the programs get reimbursed only after their "graduates" find work, says YALA Director Peter Kleinbard.
Each year YALA offers roughly 800 students - 40 percent of whom are unwed mothers and 25 percent of whom served time in prison - reading, writing, and math classes, a theater program, lessons in parenting, and substance-abuse counseling.
Mr. Kleinbard says his greatest frustration is that programs such as YALA are so short - only up to three months of school and two months of job training.
A longer-term program is the $1 billion-a-year federally funded Job Corps program, which opens 40,000 slots annually for youths who can take up to two years to train for jobs in areas from business to health care to waste-water treatment.
Where other short-term programs may fail, says Charles Tetro, president of Development and Training Corporation, the Jobs Corps programs succeed "because they allow people who are making a large transition in their lives time to accomplish it."
Based in Bucksport, Maine, halfway up the state's coastline, Mr. Tetro manages two Job Corps centers and runs the broadest array of Department of Labor-funded programs of any organization in the country. One graduate, Liz Richardson, studied welding for a year and a half, graduated two months ago, and now works for $12 an hour as a pipe welder at the Cianbro Construction Company in Maine.
Another, Ronnie Smith, recently received a one-year extension beyond the two-year program to complete a business clerical course. He now works as a Florida service attendant for Amtrak at $10 an hour.
Many in the field assert that the best government-sponsored job-training programs are those that engage the private sector.
Virginia has been in the vanguard of merging business interests with job training and education reforms. "We try to share ideas and bring the business community to tell us what skills students need," says Virginia's Secretary of Education Jim Dyke. A key goal for his department is community development through school-to-work and mentorship programs, accomplished by having business leaders come to the classrooms to teach courses.
"The emphasis has to be on all students, instead of the prior focus fixed on those going off to college," Mr. Dyke says. The changing job market "demands higher skills," he says, "not just physical strength and labor."
Even auto mechanics in the local garage have to gear up for new challenges. "It used to be that if you could handle a wrench and a screwdriver, you could fix a car. But with today's computerized auto panels, you need reading skills, math, and science to comprehend the new diagnostic equipment."
Last year, Virginia received a $10 million grant from the National Science Foundation to help the state better prepare students in math and science, and help build what Dyke calls the foundation of job preparedness.
Such targeted spending is crucial says Dyke's colleague, Howard Cullum, who serves as Virginia's secretary of health and human resources. He is combating the effects of corporate downsizing, sluggish job growth, and sharp decreases in military spending, which mean "a compression of opportunity for 18- to 25-year-olds as we move into the '90s," he says.