Start-up helps teens find jobs

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 31, 2012 - 9:07 PM

Rock Your Block is developing an app that will allow teens to apply for work in their neighborhoods and be reviewed on their job performance.

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About 40 youths gathered to hand out water to runners at the the Rock Your Block event in Minneapolis, and to encourage participants as they passed by. (girl with raised arms is Erica Kesseh, Burnsville).

Photo: Jim Gehrz, Star Tribune

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In a tight job market, it's not easy to be a teen.

Inexperience and youth have made it difficult for teens to land extra cash at the mall, when older laid-off workers are competing for the same jobs.

Rock Your Block LLC hopes to level the playing field. The Minneapolis-based start-up is developing an online and mobile app to link teenage job seekers with neighborhood employers.

The idea came to founder Sarah Young two years ago when she was a senior at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management. There was résumé website LinkedIn and job listings on Monster.com for adults. But she saw few options for teens searching for work.

"The youth are so much more technology literate. Why is there no service?" Young said. "I thought about what I was like when I was a kid. Had I had a service like this, I would have been online all the time, looking at opportunities around me, versus going door to door."

Rock Your Block is for teens ages 13 to 17. To apply for job listings, teens will need to pay a $45 annual fee and list a sponsor, whether it be a parent or a community group like the YMCA.

Rock Your Block does not charge neighbors to post jobs, but there will be a fee for companies that want to hire teens. All job posters will undergo a background check, Young said. Jobs can be chores around a neighborhood, such as yard work, running errands or dog walking.

Teens will be able to see job postings nearby based on their address. Once a teen finishes a job, the employer can post a review of their performance on the teen's profile. See blog.rockyourblock.com/ for details.

Clearly there's a teen labor market ready to be tapped. While the nation's February unemployment was 8.3 percent, the rate for 16- to 19-year-olds was 23.8 percent. The teen jobless rate has remained above 20 percent since late 2008.

Rock Your Block is currently testing its app with 675 participants and hopes to launch later this month.

So far, the start-up has organized two activities: a volunteer taskforce that raised money for the Burnsville High School girl's track team and an event that helped homeless teens and those in foster homes earn money for raking leaves. The second event was part of a partnership with the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities.

Gianna Koné, a youth support specialist at the YMCA, said Rock Your Block empowers teens to find jobs. In the past, teens could knock on doors looking for jobs but that's becoming less common, she said.

"This is a way to close that gap virtually," Koné said.

Young's idea for the start-up almost didn't come to life because she was too embarrassed to tell anyone. She wasn't sure the idea would gain enough support.

She finally revealed her idea in September 2010 at Twin Cities Startup Weekend, a competition that challenges entrepreneurs to build a business and prototype it in just 48 hours. Rock Your Block was a runnerup in the contest.

Rock Your Block is one of the few companies that specifically focuses on helping teens get jobs. However, the business model of linking job seekers with household errand-based work has become more popular. For example, San Francisco-based start-up TaskRabbit Inc. raised $17.8 million in funding last year, with 4,000 job seekers nationwide using its service to get paid for tasks such as waiting in line to buy an iPad for a client. Job hunters have to be at least 21 to participate, because the firm said its clients have been more comfortable working with adults. Task Rabbit said the Twin Cities is one of their target areas of expansion.

But Young said Rock Your Block stands out from its competitors because there's a "feel-good" aspect to it, by helping young people enter the workforce.

Many people would rather hire neighborhood teens than pay older workers for the same tasks, Young said. "Our market is very targeted toward teenagers that can't find part-time jobs."

Jay Ebben, an associate professor of entrepreneurship at University of St. Thomas, agreed, calling Rock Your Block a great concept.

"There's a lot of good that can come out of this and I think people will see that," Ebben said.

Rock Your Block is led by three partners: Young, chief strategy officer Steven Ladin and chief technology officer John Hibscher. Minority stakeholders are Blake Faris, director of technology, and Caryn Evans, community outreach director.

Young put $5,000 of her own money into the business. Her parents have nagged her to get a "real job." But Young, 24, believes her idea will pull through.

"There's no better time to do this," she said.

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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