Rachel Devries

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. Such was the case with the inception of NEXTGen Connect, a partnership program between Federation’s NEXTGen Detroit and JVS, which helps young adult job seekers in Metro Detroit. From a grassroots effort spearheaded by a group of Federation lay leaders, then called CSI (College Student Internships), to a staffed operation that has connected over 700 young adults to opportunities in the last eight years, NEXTGen Connect is helping 21 to 45-year-olds overcome the challenges of launching and developing meaningful careers.

Rachel Devries
“I . . . understand the difference NEXTGen Connect can make when you’re looking for a job.”

Rachel Devries, NEXTGen Connect’s new Employment Specialist (as of December) is the third full-time staff member to run the program. She knows first-hand how important this program has been and continues to be.

“I got my first job by working with JVS, and I sure as heck got [this] my second job through JVS. I get it, I get that it’s hard. I also understand the difference NEXTGen Connect can make when you’re looking for a job,” said Devries. “The program has a reputation that precedes me. People in the community know about NEXTGen Connect, so potential employers are actively reaching out and letting me know what kinds of positions they are looking to fill. But it took a lot of hard work to get to this point.”

Rewind to 2010, when Metro Detroit was still feeling the effects of the recession. While established professionals certainly took a hit, the economic crisis also was devastating for a generation of recent college grads who were left with degrees in hand and very few job opportunities.

“Companies weren’t hiring, they simply couldn’t. The result was young people leaving Metro Detroit and moving to other states to find work,” said Amy Brody, NEXTGen Connect’s first full-time staff member. “The situation was extremely concerning to a group of Federation lay leaders, so they began using their connections, asking potential employers if they would consider taking on interns. A suprisingly large amount said ‘yes.’”

Brody, a law school student serving on the NEXTGen Detroit Board of Directors at the time, volunteered to take on the task of helping connect young adults to these internships.

“There might not have been jobs, but there was the possibility of internships and, in this way, we could keep young people here, get them started in the workforce, and hopefully gainful employment would follow,” said Brody.

As the extent of the need became more apparent, the program was formalized through NEXTGen Detroit and Amy went from volunteer to the first NEXTGen Connect staff. JVS quickly came on board, offering their employment services and expertise. NEXTGen Detroit already was attracting young people to their community events, many of whom were looking for work; it was a perfect match.

Amy Brody eventually passed the reins to Lauren Rubin, the second full-time staff to run NEXTGen Connect. Rubin, who split her time between NEXTGen Detroit and JVS, grew the program as it shifted away from internship placement and began to take advantage of new employment opportunities. Networking events, workshops and one-on-one services became available and popular.

Meanwhile, Rachel Devries was figuring out her career path with some help from JVS.

“I graduated college and had no idea what I wanted to do. My dad said, ‘Rachel you need to work somewhere, or volunteer somewhere, to find something constructive and worthwhile to do.’ So I contacted Tamarack Camps and asked if I could volunteer,” said Devries. “When I first started volunteering at Tamarack, I thought it would be so cool if I could actually work there, but I didn’t know how to go about asking or what that would even look like.”

While volunteering, Rachel was still looking for work, which took her to JVS. There she met with a career counselor who suggested that maybe this volunteer position she loved could turn into a paid job. Her counselor guided her on how to talk to Tamarack about the possibility of joining their professional team and, ultimately, Tamarack created a job which hadn’t existed before, just for Rachel.

“I wouldn’t have had the courage or known how to do that if not for my career counselor at JVS,” said Devries. “I worked at Tamarack for several years. I loved it so much, but I thought, maybe I’ll see what else is happening right now, and if it’s the right time for me to start thinking about growing in my career.”

Having heard about NEXTGen Connect, Rachel emailed Lauren Rubin, writing that she was interested in exploring the idea of taking her career in a new direction. Someone from JVS replied and explained that Lauren Rubin had taken a full-time position with NEXTGen Detroit and was no longer working as the NEXTGen Connect Employment Specialist, but someone else would be happy to help Rachel in the meantime while they worked to fill the position.

“So I responded, ‘could I apply for that position?’ It was a bold move — but it paid off. I interviewed and got the job,” said Devries.

In her new role, Devries works at the JVS building in Southfield three days a week and at the Federation Building in Bloomfield Hills with NEXTGen Detroit two days a week.

Now that’s she’s settled in, we asked Rachel to tell us what young adults should know about NEXTGen Connect. Here’s what she had to say.

Who does NEXTGen Connect help?

Students as young as juniors and seniors in high school.

We go into classrooms and teach skills like resumé writing, but we also talk about professionalism and the appropriate way to conduct oneself in a workplace. These are skills students can use anytime, whether it’s at a summer or after school job, if they work through college or when they start a career after graduating from high school or college.

College students at various campus Hillels.

I’ll go to Michigan, Michigan State, Eastern and so on. In those situations, we really let the students guide the program and discuss the topics they want to talk about. I go to help them get excited about entering the working world, and I also share ways to get involved with NEXTGen Detroit and their Jewish community post-graduation. I want them to know what a rewarding life they can start to build for themselves in Metro Detroit when they’re done with school. Our hope is that these college students understand that they can find great jobs here and also have a meaningful social life.

Recent college grads are probably who we help most often. Navigating a job search, especially when you’ve never done it before, can be very intimidating. Recent grads are writing their resumés from scratch, probably don’t have a lot of interview experience and often have a degree but not a clear idea of how they want to use it. We’re here to help with all of that.

People who have been working in the same job for several years and are looking to make a change, both within their current field or in a new sector.

We help people identify how their skills are transferable, how to craft a cover letter for a specific position that plays up their unique talents and experience and, of course, how to discover job openings that might not be easy to find.

People thinking about relocating to Michigan or returning to Michigan.

A lot of young families are moving here for the first time or returning after being gone for several years. Often one spouse is coming for a job and the other spouse wants to find work once they get here. We also help newcomers make connections, not just professionally, but also socially.

What challenges are unique to young adults looking for jobs today?

 A lot of young people haven’t built a network yet. We always say that the best way to get a job is through networking. About 20% of jobs are posted online. But what about the other 80%? Word of mouth. And even if you do find your dream job online, having an “in” can make a huge difference. When you’re younger, you don’t know that many people with those types of connections. Just building that network is one of the main challenges.

I think young adults today are very social media savvy with platforms like Snapchat, Facebook and Instagram, but they aren’t investing in LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a real asset, it’s a great way to network and jobs are being posted constantly. If younger adults harnessed the power of LinkedIn, it would be a game changer for a lot of them.

The interview experience can be really intimidating for young adults.

I had a client come to me the other day and say, “I have all these interviews, but I’m not getting any offers. I know at least one of the reasons is that I’m not enthusiastic. I know I’m a very monotone speaker.” So we worked together on being genuinely enthusiastic in an interview without “faking it.” A skill like that isn’t something you necessarily learn in school, it’s something you need one-on-one help with to perfect, and a lot of practice.

What are some of the services NEXTGen Connect provides for job seekers?

Free workshops that occur multiple times a week, both at the JVS location in Southfield and at the Hermelin ORT Resource Center at the JCC in West Bloomfield. Topics range from LinkedIn basics, networking, how to stay positive when you’re going through a long job search, resumé writing, anything you can think of. Either a JVS employment specialist or a career counselor teaches these workshops.

One-on-one sessions, either in person, over the phone, or via emails. We try to be as accessible as we can. I’ll meet someone at Starbucks or they can come to my office. If someone reaches out to me who’s thinking about moving to Michigan and currently living in another state, we’ll start the conversation and the job search over the phone.

 Time with career counselors and employment specialists. I’m an employment specialist, so I meet with people who are able to do an independent job search on their own, meaning they know what they want and they could do it by themselves, but they would benefit from some help.

A career counselor is a master-level clinician who can help someone who isn’t quite certain of the type of job he or she is looking for. A career counselor will ask different questions and conduct tests with a client to identify skills and interests and figure out what career options would be a good fit.

Opportunities to network and access to a broader network are so valuable when looking for a job.

NEXTWork, our professional networking series, has been incredibly successful and attracted over 450 people since its launch a few years ago. We offer NEXTWork events three or four times a year, and they’re a great way to meet other young Jewish professionals from a variety of professional backgrounds.

The NEXTGen Connect lay leader committee is made up of local professionals, most of whom are outside of the “NEXTGen age” bracket, who have great professional connections within the community. I meet with them regularly to share information about the job seekers I am working with.

Committee members, in turn, look at the resumes, meet the job seekers and then identify if they have a connection or contact to share that would be beneficial for their search. This committee really demonstrates how giving and eager people are to help one another in our community. These are established professionals who have been successful in their careers for years and are so excited to help young adults who are just starting out.

Then there’s me — I grew up here. I have deep roots in Detroit, I was involved in Tamarack, Adat Shalom, NCSY, BBYO, Hillel Day School, Frankel Jewish Academy, University of Michigan, Michigan State and I use my personal network to help my clients. I’m always happy to make introductions. We all have such complicated and interesting networks and now, because of social media, we have a way to stay in touch and expand our networks. It’s amazing when you know someone who knows someone who knows someone, and you put these perfect puzzle pieces together to make something great happen for somebody else.

Why is NEXTGen Connect so important?

Allow me to explain with a story…I have a memory from first grade. It was our first week of school and one of my little classmates came a few days late. Her family had been on vacation, so she started her school year several days after everyone else. This is first grade, a new school, and those initial days are crucial for friend-making. I went up to her, and I started introducing her to the rest of the kids.

In first grade, I was networking. I didn’t have a word for it, but I was making connections for the benefit of this girl, for the benefit of me, for the benefit of our community. To this day, that’s what I do.

How much more comfortable do we feel when we walk into a room of people we know, or even kind of know, as opposed to a room full of strangers? How much more can we get accomplish when we are comfortable and have some common ground?

It’s hard to be happy without a job. It’s hard to be happy without a social circle, a support system. That’s what NEXTGen Connect does, it helps people find those fundamental things to be happy.

When we think about most social services, the goal usually is that one day they won’t be needed. If you have services that support the homeless, the hope is that eventually you won’t need those services because everyone will have a home. But with the service NEXTGen Connect provides, it’ll always be needed, and that’s not a bad thing, it’s actually a good thing. People are always going to need jobs; people are always going to want to grow. I hope the need always exists and is great, and that the services we provide expand and continue to be accessible.

If you would like to learn more about NEXTGen Connect and employment services, you can contact Rachel Devries at rdevries@jvsdet.org.