Several weeks ago, I saw something that has been somewhat of a rarity in the last year or so—a help wanted sign. The economic slump which we have been enduring has cost people of all skill sets, backgrounds, and educational levels their jobs; no particular sector of the community has been immune from the tough times. Though the economy is starting to show hopeful signs of recovery, there is still one sector that is mired in what has been an even longer slump—young people.
For the last four summers, America’s teens have been employed in record low numbers, and this summer will apparently be no different. The number of teens working has declined precipitously over the last decade, falling from 45 percent in 2000 to 26 percent in 2010, a major employment crisis for youth. The Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University estimates that only 25% of teens between 16 and 19 will have a job this summer. This means about 12 million of our country’s young people will be idle. If they are not working, many of these teens will waste three months being non-productive or, worse, involved in dangerous or criminal activities.
Things are even tougher for young people of color. In June 2010, black teens of all socioeconomic levels had an employment rate of only 15.2 percent, making them 53 percent less likely to work than white teens. Low-income black teens fared far worse, with only 9 percent of them employed. Although Hispanic youth were the most likely minority group to work, they still lagged behind whites. Black male teenagers living in urban communities are the least likely to obtain summer employment. They are also the ones most at risk for engaging in perilous activities due to lack of connection to positive summer opportunities. The teens who need employment and stand to gain the most from the experience are the least likely to get it.
Summer employment is known to result in multiple benefits for youth, particularly low-income youth, including academic gains in mathematics and reading, experience in the world of work which results in higher earnings in early adulthood, an enhanced self esteem, personal and social skill development, and decreased involvement in violent or criminal activities. Many low-income youth contribute their earnings from summer jobs to supplement family income, to buy necessary clothing and school supplies for the upcoming school year, and to support their recreational activities that parents just cannot afford. Work is not an option for these youth—it is necessary for their survival.
Over the past several summers, funds provided to the states by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act were used to provide employment for over 300,000 youth; but those funds have been expended and those jobs have gone away. ARRA dollars, while helpful, were only a band aid that temporarily covered a very large wound. If we are going to genuinely help young people prepare for the world of work, we must do a much better job of providing opportunities for them to gain that vital employment experience in their teen years.
The Center for Law and Social Policy recommends that:
“Federal policymakers should focus on a more intentional, thoughtful, and sustained approach to youth employment that seriously weighs the value of investing in the future of America’s workforce. They can put in place policies and resources to promote a comprehensive youth employment strategy that includes the reinstatement of federal funding for summer jobs and other paid work experience opportunities such as service and youth corps, transitional jobs, internships, and on-the-job-training. This critical first step will ensure greater labor market outcomes for youth. The federal government, states and communities also should invest in year-round employment opportunities for youth, particularly for older youth and those who are currently disconnected from the labor market and do not have a high school credential. Their future success depends on a strategy that reengages them in learning and training to put them on a pathway to successful and sustainable employment. Finally, resources must be targeted to low-income and minority communities where the need is greatest.”
Young people don’t need or want temporary solutions that don’t really address the problem. They want to work and they are willing to work. They just need the opportunity and the support to build the skills that they will use all their lives. It is up to us—the trusted adults in their lives—to do our best work in making sure that all youth are well-prepared for school, for work, and for life.
John Brandon, MCCOY Inc.