Minority Summer-Job Outlook Unclear

By Ellen Flax — June 03, 1987 9 min read

What appears to be a boom year for teen-age summer jobs may not reduce the chronically high unemployment rates of poor and minority youths, experts in a number of labor-related fields are warning.

Growth in the national economy, coupled with a decrease in the size of the high-school-age population, has created an unusually large number of vacancies this year in the “seasonal’’ job market usually filled by out-of-school young people, labor analysts report.

But taking advantage of the opportunities, they add, may require resources and skills that many inner-city youths lack.

“We’re going to hear a lot about help-wanted signs in the window and jobs going begging,’' said Frank Slobig, co-director of the Washington-based nonprofit group Youth Service America. “The flip side of that is that you have a lot of physically isolated and minority kids without jobs.’'

Even in April, however, the unemployment rate for the 16-to-24-year-old age group--12.6 percent--was more than a percentage point below what it was at the same time last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And with what the bureau estimates will be a drop-off of 450,000 in that age bracket, officials there and elsewhere said last week that many summer employers--especially those in the suburbs and resort areas--may find themselves without enough young people to fill vacancies.

“There will be jobs available for all young people who want them,’' said Robert Colombo, director of the U.S. Labor Department’s office of employment and training programs.

Others cautioned, however, that a combination of factors--from limited public transportation and placement services, to basic educational deficiencies--may keep some of the teen-agers most in need of work from benefiting from the improved outlook.

According to the B.L.S. economists, the summer unemployment rate for blacks in the 16-to-24-year-old age group--which last year, at 29.6 percent, was nearly three times the rate for white youths--is not likely to change significantly this summer.

Moreover, the Conference Board, in its annual survey of summer youth-employment prospects in major U.S. cities, painted a less-than-rosy long-term forecast for young people lacking sufficient job skills.

“Despite a decrease in the U.S. youth population and in the youth labor force, and despite evidence that this trend will continue,’' its 1987 report states, “youth unemployment is expected to increase through the end of the century.’'

Citing evidence gathered from the National Alliance of Business and interviews with youth-employment-program officials in the 34 cities surveyed, the board attributed this trend primarily to the increasing school-dropout rate and ineffective vocational counseling and placement efforts.

According to the board’s calculations, 35.3 percent of black teen-agers went jobless last summer, a time when the national unemployment level stood at 6.7 percent and the level for teen-agers as a whole was 14.3 percent.

Looking to Private Sector

Nevertheless, the board’s new report, released last month, found that more than 150,000 teen-agers in the cities surveyed are expected to find summer jobs this year through public-private partnerships. The figure, it says, is about equal to that reported last summer and slightly ahead of 1985 placements.

Of the 34 cities responding to the survey, officials in 24 said they expected to place at least as many youths in summer jobs this year as in 1986. Employment-program directors in 10 cities said, however, that their efforts would fall short of last year’s summer-employment push.

In addition, the federal government expects to employ some 622,000 low-income youths this year through the Job Training Partnership Act. But this represents a decline from last summer, when the program paid for nearly 700,000 jobs for young people.

To fill the gap, city officials report that they have relied more heavily this year on the private sector to produce summer employment, according to the Conference Board. Its report notes, however, that the bulk of placements by city agencies continue to be in public and nonprofit agencies.

In New York City, for example, officials said 3,000 fewer jobs would be available this year for disadvantaged youths in city-run programs, largely the result of decreased federal funding.

Last year, they noted, the federal government paid for 38,000 such jobs, and the city’s private-industry council was able to add an additional 35,000 placements. This year, though the private-sector slots will climb to 40,000, 8,000 fewer positions will be available through the program.

Nathan Weber, an author of the Conference Board’s report, said it was significant, however, that such programs would place very few youths in fast-food establishments this summer. He said more would be working in clerical and office positions, allowing them to learn such job skills as word processing.

“They seem to be looking for jobs that provide a broader range of work experiences,’' Mr. Weber said. “It can be priceless--more than taking a hamburger from the kitchen to the counter.’'

Minority Prospects

But Andrew Sum, professor of economics at Northeastern University in Boston, pointed to longstanding discrepancies between the success rate for poor teen-agers in the job market and that of more affluent youths.

From the middle of 1985 through the middle of last year, he said, a teen-ager whose family income was below the poverty line generally stood roughly half the chance of being employed as one whose family income was around $30,000.

For poor youths who are black or Hispanic, he said, the scenario may be much grimmer. According to his calculations, blacks whose families are below the poverty line have only a 14 percent chance of finding a job. Even when the family income is in the $30,000 range, he added, black youths have only a one-in-three chance of being employed.

Poor Hispanic youths, the economist said, have a 26 percent chance of being employed, and those from middle-class backgrounds have a 45 percent chance.

In addition, Mr. Sum said, only one out of three poor white youths has a job, while teen-agers from richer households stand a 50 percent chance of being hired if they seek work.

He characterized the assertion by some that jobs are available to all teen-agers who want them as “really off the cuff and not relevant to a lot of the country.’'

Last summer, when the economy was good, he said, approximately 2.4 million youths wanted a job but could not get one. And, he noted, approximately 1 million teen-agers wanted full-time jobs but could find only part-time employment.

“It’s not as easy as they suggest,’' he said. “There are large numbers of kids who want jobs who won’t get them.’'

To complicate matters, he and others point out, money allocated under the program, which is based on an area’s adult unemployment rate, is not targeted as effectively as it should be. Although a city and its surrounding suburbs may have approximately the same unemployment rate, they charge, the inner city is far more likely to have a higher incidence of poverty.

“The funding formula doesn’t really recognize poverty, as opposed to unemployment,’' Mr. Sum said. “You could have a lot of employed people [in the city] who are poor, and have an unemployed person [in the suburbs] who’s not poor. That’s what causes these quirks.’'

‘Mismatched’ Opportunities

Similarly, Mr. Slobig of Youth Service America said that many inner-city youths would not be able to get to the suburbs, where most of the new job opportunities are.

“You have this nationwide mismatch situation,’' he said.

According to Bob Dean, director of Job Plus, a Houston nonprofit group that helps disadvantaged teen-agers find work, a direct correlation exists between a job’s location and how quickly it is filled. His organization tries to place youths in positions that are in their own Zcodes.

Because of the collapse of oil prices, the summer-job market in Houston is tight, Mr. Dean said. Some 6,500 youths have called to apply for the approximately 2,000 positions Job Plus will have available.

Yet, more than 120 job listings--all in the suburbs--have no takers, Mr. Dean said. “If I don’t have a bus that goes to that Zcode, I can’t fill it.’'

The Houston job counselor also noted that disadvantaged youths often lack sophisticated job-hunting skills. “They’re only going to be told ‘no’ two or three times before they give up,’' he said.

Even in economically depressed Youngstown, Ohio, job opportunities are available, said Michael Connelly, director of the Youngstown Employment and Training Corporation, but those who take advantage of them have to “hustle.’'

He noted, for example, that some suburban youths earn substantial amounts of money in the summer months by cutting lawns. He added, however, that “people in the suburbs can afford to have that done.’'

He said stories about jobs going begging “are not all they’re cracked up to be,’' especially in fast-food establishments.

“We’ve had some inner-city kids come in 15 or 20 miles, only to find out that they wanted someone for only 10 hours a week,’' he said. “Or they won’t guarantee them hours, or will give them the midnight-to-5 A.M. shift. It’s a great job for a housewife who lives three blocks away, but it’s not a valid statement that my kind of client can hold that job.’'

Some jobs officials noted that social, economic, and racial prejudices make the marketing of inner-city youths to suburban employers a difficult task.

In Los Angeles, Manny Rico, the assistant director of the city’s summer youth-employment program, said approximately half of all inner-city teen-agers are unemployed. Yet, he said, the emphasis is on finding city-based jobs for disadvantaged youths.

“Our experience is that Beverly Hills wouldn’t want one our kids, anyhow,’' he said. “They don’t fit the image, I suppose.’'

Despite the creation of 12 million new jobs in the U.S. economy since November 1982, Mr. Slobig of Washington said, only 1 percent--or 100,000--have gone to teen-agers. And of those, most have gone to white teen-agers.

“If the past is prologue, there’s nothing to suggest that the summertime part-time-employment boom will have a significant effect on minority youths,’' he said.

In fact, said Pierce Quinlan, executive vice president of the National Alliance of Business, the summer-job outlook for poor and minority youths may offer a small-scale view of what will be a large-scale problem in the future for employers.

“It’s a reflection of what our employers are increasingly going to face in the coming years,’' he said, “a significant shortage of young people coming out of school.’' And this pool, he added, is “going to be different--black, Hispanic, and more women.’'

Inner-City Picture

Seeking to assess the validity for the inner city of media reports that teen-age jobs would “go begging’’ this summer, the Conference Board asked employment-program directors whether placement problems in their communities were caused by too few applicants or too little opportunity. Officials in 20 of the 34 cities surveyed said that not enough jobs were available.

“However,’' the board’s report says, “their comments indicate that the problem goes beyond an actual scarcity of work. Other factors cited include a lack of jobs providing quality work experience, unattractive salaries in jobs that do exist, and insufficient skills among the youths.’'

Many youth-employment experts stressed the need to better prepare disadvantaged young people for work. Krista Dow, director of employment youth services for New Detroit Inc., said her program tries particularly to serve those between the ages of 14 and 16.

“We have to pay attention to these young people,’' Ms. Dow said. “They have idle time.’'

Noting the “greater level of discontent’’ among undirected urban youngsters, she urged a broadened financial commitment by the private sector and all levels of government to training and encouraging them.

“We don’t want a powder keg to explode,’' she said.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 1987 edition of Education Week as Minority Summer-Job Outlook Unclear