Montgomery County Mayor Wes Golden works with Kailee Bush

Montgomery County Mayor Wes Golden works with Kailee Bush, a participant in Tennessee's Youth Employment Program. Bush is a student at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

Investing in the Future: Youth Employment Program
a Win-Win for Tennessee Businesses and Youth People

By Karen Grigsby
Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development

The leader of Tennessee’s youngest county by population can still learn a thing or two from Gen Z.

“It’s nice having that younger perspective that you can talk with and bounce things off of,” Wes Golden said.

Golden is the Mayor of Montgomery County, where a state-high 26.2% of residents are under the age of 18, according to the KIDS COUNT Data Center.

Last summer, Golden’s office hired two young people as part of Tennessee's Youth Employment Program, or YEP.

The state-funded program, which is overseen by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development (TDLWD), is a win-win for employers and youths. Employers bolster their workforce with young talent without paying any wages or administrative costs. Meanwhile, youths have an opportunity to learn and earn, gaining valuable work skills while making up to $4,000.

Kailee Bush is one of the two students who worked at the Montgomery County Mayor’s Office last summer. She learned about YEP after her mother saw an ad on Facebook.

Bush, 20, is attending the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, where she is majoring in biochemistry with a minor in criminal justice. She got an up-close look at the justice system during her time with the mayor’s office. Bush toured the jail and other county facilities, met with a judge, and researched juvenile resource centers.

“I got to network and work with incredible people,” said Bush, who plans to attend medical school after college.

For Golden, the research work Bush did — studying the structures and budgets of juvenile resource centers in other counties — was particularly valuable as Montgomery County considers building its own facility.

“It was very useful,” said Golden, whose office is participating in YEP again this year. “A lot of times we don’t have the bandwidth to really dig deep into the fine details. … It’s both educational on their side but a benefit to the county as well.”

About YEP

Formerly known as the Summer Youth Employment Program, YEP launched in Tennessee last year. While youths are typically available to work more hours when school is out, the program isn’t limited to summertime.

A priority of Gov. Bill Lee, YEP connects youths and employers in various industries across Tennessee. Young people can explore career options while growing personally and professionally. Employers gain bright, eager workers, and their staffing costs are covered by the state.

More than 1,500 youths have been enrolled since the start of the program.

YEP participants can earn up to $4,000. There is no restriction on the number of hours youths can work each week; however, all state and federal child and labor laws must be followed.

The only requirement is that participants must be between the ages of 14 and 24. A priority is given to low-income youths and those in foster care, said Troy Jenkins, Youth Grant Program Manager.

YEP is a state-funded program. Grant funds were awarded to all nine Local Workforce Development Boards (LWDBs) and four nonprofits to administer YEP.

Marla Rye is the President of the nonprofit Workforce Essentials and the Executive Director of the Northern Middle Tennessee Workforce Board, which works with American Job Centers across Middle Tennessee to recruit youths and employers to participate in YEP.

The board hopes to serve 350 youths this summer, she said.

“Everyone remembers their first job,” Rye said. “It is critical that we give youth the opportunity to experience their first job at an early age in order to develop valuable work ethics of Tennessee’s future workforce.”

Mayor Wes Golden speaks at YEP launch event

Montgomery County Mayor Wes Golden speaks at the launch event for the Youth Employment Program on April 29. His office is participating in the program again this year. (Civitas Agency)

Benefits for Employers

For employers, YEP requires little work for a big payoff.

Besides being able to fill open positions at no cost, employers play a part in mentoring and inspiring young workers, some of whom might stay on with the company for years. A youth participant today could be tomorrow’s all-star employee.

“By participating, employers are contributing to the growth and development of the future workforce while also building a pipeline to young talent,” said Matthew Murphy, Workforce Services Division Director at TDLWD.

In addition to helping recruit and place youths into jobs, YEP administrators take care of everything from payroll to insurance, allowing employers to avoid the paperwork hassle and focus on providing a meaningful work experience for participants.

“Working in local government, for us, getting something approved, through a budget and everything else is always challenging,” Golden said. “Having Workforce Essentials removing all those obstacles for us, it was very easy. The hardest thing we had to do was interview folks.”

Benefits for Youths

YEP gives youths the opportunity to test-drive future careers and discover their likes and strengths. They gain hands-on experience while building their resumes and making networking connections. They also develop soft skills such as problem-solving, communication and adaptability. They do all this while contributing to a team and getting paid.

Golden, 44, fondly remembers his first job. He was 14 and worked on a construction site in Clarksville, doing everything from moving materials to installing doorknobs.

“I was primarily working around a bunch of older men that had already had a lot of life experience who also had the patience to teach a young soul like me,” he said.

“Any time that a younger person can go out and gain that work experience and learn from people who have the life experience and have already made all the mistakes, there’s always added benefit there.”

TDLWD Commissioner Deniece Thomas speaks at the YEP launch event

Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development Commissioner Deniece Thomas speaks at the Youth Employment Program launch event April 29. "This program has nothing but success written all over it," she said. (Civitas Agency)

Outreach Effort

The statewide effort to inform and enroll YEP participants has been described as unprecedented.

Several divisions of TDLWD are involved, engaging employers and working with local workforce development boards and nonprofits to answer questions. Mobile American Job Centers will be parked outside schools and youth-focused events to provide more information about YEP. The outreach campaign also includes commercials, social media, flyers, billboards, and a website — — geared toward youths, parents, and employers.

On April 29, TDLWD hosted a launch and press event for YEP outside the department’s building on French Landing Drive in Nashville. On a stage in front of a Mobile American Job Center, TDLWD Commissioner Deniece Thomas and state and county officials spoke to the crowd about the importance of YEP in nurturing young workers and in building a competitive workforce in Tennessee.

“What is so amazing is that it allows youth the opportunity to get practical, hands-on experience with Tennessee businesses in various industry sectors,” Commissioner Thomas said. “This allows the youth to get a head start in getting professional experience that they can put on their resume and in their career portfolio.”

Bradley Jackson, the President and CEO of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry, called YEP "innovative."

State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson speaks at the YEP launch event

“We want Tennessee to be the best state in the nation for businesses to operate and for families to live, work, and raise their families," he said. "Tennessee is helping lead the nation, and we have to think outside the box, for companies to engage students and help them develop soft skills and on-the-job experiences and training.”

State Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson, who also attended the launch event, co-sponsored the legislation that includes funding for YEP.

“Businesses want to come here. They want to expand here. And that’s a really, really good thing,” he said. “But our folks over at (Economic and Community Development) will tell you that one of the first questions they get when they’re recruiting a company or talking to a company about expanding is ‘Where are we going to get our workforce? Where are we going to get that qualified workforce to come and fill the thousands, hundreds of thousands of jobs that we’re going to create here in your state?’

“So we’re committed to that. We’re working very hard to make sure that those people are there to be able to fill those very, very important jobs, and the Youth Employment Program is going to be a very, very key part of that.”

For more information about YEP, email


What are the requirements for youths to participate in YEP?
The only requirement is that youths must be between the ages of 14 and 24. A priority is given to low-income youths and those in foster care.

What are the requirements for employers?
Employers only need to be willing to provide a meaningful and safe work environment for youths.

Is there a limit on how many youths an employer can hire?
No, but there should be work available for participants and proper management by employers.

Can youths work remotely?
Yes, but the company must be based in Tennessee.

Who pays the youths’ salary?
YEP is a state-funded program, with a grant covering the costs of wages or wage reimbursement for the employer. Youths can earn up to $4,000 each.

Who oversees the youths at work?
The youths are employees of the company, and the company is in charge just as it would be with any of its employees. The State of Tennessee does not manage or assist with hiring or firing of program participants.

Can the state guarantee youths a job?
No. Job placement depends on the number of participating employers.

How can I sign up?
Interested youths can fill out this form. Interested employers can fill out this form. For more information about YEP, email or visit

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