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Should young people mind their own business?

By Glenn Burkins
Special to The Observer
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting CharlotteĀ’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.

With the unemployment rate for young people stuck in double digits, a growing chorus is calling for more training in skilled labor and entrepreneurship.

Two such proponents are here in Charlotte.

Henry Rock, who moved from New York in 2012, is working with the Urban League of Central Carolinas to launch what he calls an “entrepreneurs academy” – a 15-week, hands-on program that would train “at-risk men of color” ages 18 to 29 to start and run their own businesses. At the same time, Hans Plotseneder, a former Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools teacher who twice ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the school board, has applied for a charter to launch Entrepreneurs High School, which, he says, would render students work-ready upon completion in four to five years. Plotseneder would serve as principal.

Both ideas are intriguing enough. But as difficult as entrepreneurship is, can potential business owners be identified, trained and churned out like mass-produced widgets?

Neither man is promising to do that, but both say early training can go a long way toward addressing two chronic problems facing the U.S. economy – the high rate of youth unemployment, especially in black communities, and the much-talked-about shortage of skilled workers that bedevils American business.

Rock, who is African-American, comes to his conviction from a purely Afro-centric point of view. Too many young black males are dropping out of schools, going to prisons and otherwise being left out of the evolving economy, he says. So rather than continue to do what has clearly not worked, why not identify young males with high potential and train them to be “change agents” who run their own businesses.

In researching his idea, Rock said he was especially impressed by a former drug dealer he met in Durham. After the man was let out of prison, Rock said, he started an industrial cleaning business which, after about five years, had grown to $2.5 million in annual revenue and employed 70 full- and part-time workers. Plotseneder, on the other hand, takes his conviction more from what he experienced in the classroom during 11 years of teaching. He recalled a former student who wanted to drop out rather than spend time in classes that would not help him realize his one true dream – to take over his grandfather’s garage where he had worked since childhood learning automotive mechanics.

According to Plotseneder’s charter application, Entrepreneurs High would target students ages 15 and 16 and provide them with “middle-skill knowledge and hands-on experience.” For those who decide to start their own businesses, a fifth-year option would be available.

While Plotseneder’s students might not study Shakespeare or learn world history, they would be taught the academic skills needed to run their particular ventures, he said. A carpenter, for example, would get the math training needed to be proficient at calculating areas or measuring angles.

If Plotseneder’s charter is approved, he said he would welcome the first class to Entrepreneurs High in August 2014. As for Rock, he’s talking with local businesses and individuals looking for someone to sponsor a pilot for the entrepreneurs academy, which he estimates would cost about $125,000.

Although different in concept, both programs also would teach the more subtle skills needed to run a successful business – how to negotiate deals, how to make a good impression, how to maintain financial accounts.

Are programs such as these a silver bullet for chronic unemployment or the high rate of academic failure among African-American males? Probably not.

But given the dire predictions from those who warn that a permanent underclass may be developing in urban America, what do we have to lose by trying something new?

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, a news site for Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Observer business editor.
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