Year Up: Helping young adults close the gap between minimum wage and a livable wage

Lyle Ovalle gets up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus and then a train to be at GE Digital in Coconut Grove by 7 a.m.

Getting around without a car is just one of many challenges. There are classes at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus in pursuit of a degree in computer science, mandatory professional development sessions, and personal health issues. All while enduring discrimination for being a non-binary transgender person.

But things are beginning to look up.

The six-month internship with GE could lead to a full-time job. And a job equals stability, the number one goal for Ovalle, who has been homeless off and on since age 18.

“A lot of my hopes and intentions are to free myself from the oppressive chains of poverty,” said Ovalle, now 24.

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Ovalle found a support system at Year Up South Florida, part of a national network founded on the belief that while talent is equally distributed, opportunity is not. The nonprofit’s mission is to close the opportunity gap by giving young adults access to the skills, experiences, internships and support necessary to go from minimum wage to a livable wage.

Year Up’s intensive one-year program is divided into two parts: six months of college credit courses and professional development sessions followed by a six-month internship with one of South Florida’s dozen corporate partners, including Amazon, American Express, Chase, AT&T, and Bank of America.

In addition to coursework and training, students have access to a mix of services, resources and support to ensure their success along the way, including learning practical life skills, such as opening a bank account and budgeting. They also earn a $5,000 stipend, contingent on meeting all requirements.

“The idea is not to give them a fish but show them how to fish,” said Leopoldo Coronado, executive director of Year Up South Florida, who is assisted by 20 coaches and two social workers on staff.

With offices at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson and North campuses, Year Up South Florida has served 710 students since it opened in 2012. Most of those students end up earning an average wage of $16.75 per hour and go on to earn college degrees.

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“At first, the college leadership was concerned we were going to be competing, that it might drive students away from college, but it’s actually the other way around,” Coronado said. “The majority of students continue their studies and most of the companies we partner with offer tuition reimbursement and support their employees going to school.”

Year Up has shown that the traditional “school first, then work” model isn’t the only path to success.

A 2018 evaluation from the Pathways for Advancing Careers & Education — a large-scale randomized controlled trial evaluating next-generation strategies for increasing economic self-sufficiency — showed a 53 percent wage increase in initial earnings for Year Up graduates compared with similar young adults in a control group.

That’s the largest impact on earnings reported to date for a workforce program tested in a randomized controlled trial. The study also found a 40 percent increase holding strong at two years after graduation when compared to the control group.

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Those outcomes are significant considering Year Up students often have to overcome major external factors and limitations to get ahead, including having to work multiple jobs to support themselves and their families.

During the last six months of the program, Jaleesa Mehciz juggled online college classes, a full-time internship and worked at Party City on the weekends.

She was hired by American Express after graduating from the program last January and is now working on a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Miami Dade College.

“Year Up is one of the greatest things that happened to me,” Mehciz said. “If you’re stuck in life and don’t know what comes next, this is a great way to move forward and a great way for individuals and families to move up in socioeconomic status.”

After graduating next year, Ovalle plans to complete a bachelor’s degree in social work and help further Year Up’s mission, and hopes to one day run a homeless shelter for LGBTQ+ youth.

“Because of Year Up, I have a much more tangible chance of having a good future,” Ovalle said. “As an alumnus I want to help Year Up progress. I want everyone in the community to know about it.”

How to help

Year Up is open to individuals 18-24 years old with a high school diploma or GED. To apply, or for more information, visit The program works with Miami Dade College at the Wolfson and North campuses. Call 305-237-7252 for more information.

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