College & Workforce Readiness

Demand for Summer Jobs Outstrips Opportunities

By Denisa R. Superville — June 02, 2015 8 min read
Brihanna Thompson, 22, fills orders at Mark’s Feed Store, a restaurant in Louisville, Ky. Ms. Thompson, now in culinary school, is a graduate of a city program that places youths in summer jobs, an experience she credits with putting her on a career path.
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While job prospects for youths have been on the uptick recently, the employment opportunities for many young people in low-income urban communities are expected to remain slim this summer.

The summer teen-employment rate, which collapsed during the Great Recession and has been slow to recover ever since, is expected to rise slightly this year, but remain well below the average employment rate of 52 percent for the summer months in 1999 and 2000.

The projection of a “modestly higher” employment rate of nearly 30 percent this summer for those between 16 and 19, up from 27 percent last summer, comes from the Center for Labor Markets and Policy at Drexel University in Philadelphia, which tracks youth-employment trends nationally.

But it’s hardly a cause for celebration among advocates who have long complained that cuts in federal financial support for summer jobs and changes in the job market leave many youths, particularly those in urban centers, on the sidelines. And concerns over a dearth of job opportunities for urban youths have taken on greater urgency this summer as inner-city communities such as Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore seek to address deeper racial and socioeconomic issues that led to protests and rioting in the aftermath of the deaths of young black men and boys at the hands of police.

Brihanna Thompson, 22, holds a pot of green beans in the kitchen of Mark’s Feed Store in Louisville, Ky., a restaurant where she first was hired through a city summer jobs program. This summer, city officials plan to place nearly 2,500 youths in jobs, either at private companies or through local government agencies.

Youths between the ages of 16 and 19 were hit hardest by the job losses of the Great Recession, and the more than 11 million jobs that have been added nationally since then have largely bypassed them, according to the Center for Labor Markets and Policy. The numbers are quite stark in some areas of the country: Only 1 in 10 black male teens in Philadelphia had a job in 2012-2013, according to the center.

“It’s an absolute crisis,” said Michael Gritton, the executive director of KentuckianaWorks, a Louisville, Ky., agency that runs that city’s SummerWorks program.

Some 5,400 youths, about 1,500 of whom were from low-income backgrounds, have been placed in summer jobs in government agencies and private companies in Louisville since Mayor Greg E. Fischer started the program in 2011, Mr. Gritton said.

“There are not enough opportunities for these young people,” Mr. Gritton continued. “And if they don’t work, they don’t learn the lessons of work. If they don’t learn the lessons of work, they come into our career centers as 22-year-olds without a clue on how to get and hold a job.”

This year, Mr. Gritton hopes to find positions for 2,500 youths between the ages of 16 and 21. But the number of youths under 24 who could potentially benefit from the program is 9,100, he said.

Stories of need far outstripping available opportunities abound in cities. In 2014, for example, New York City helped provide 47,000 jobs for young people through its Summer Youth Employment Program. But there were 90,000 applicants the city could not place.

The federal government historically provided dedicated funds to states for summer youth-employment programs, but over the years the targeted block grants for those jobs have been removed from workforce and job-training legislation, leaving the summer jobs funding as an option, not a requirement.

Overall funding has also declined in recent years as focus shifted to job training programs. Changes last year to the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act shifts the emphasis to youths, age 16 to 24 who are not in school, but also require that at least 20 percent of the funds—about $830 million—be spent on work experiences, which can include youth summer jobs.

Mayors’ Role

Responsibility for summer youth-employment opportunities in cities has always fallen largely on mayors, who work with workforce boards, chambers of commerce, local businesses, and nonprofits to create jobs for young people. With fewer federal dollars, localities have relied more heavily on already-tight municipal budgets, and in the last three years or so, turned to foundations and large corporations to keep those programs afloat, said Andrew Moore, the director of youth and adult connections at the National League of Cities.

According to the Center for Labor Markets and Policy, low-income and minority teens in urban centers tend to have lower summer employment rates compared to their white and suburban counterparts, and those vary from city to city.

In recent years, teens have had to compete for entry-level jobs with other more-qualified candidates, including college students and older workers, especially those over 55, said Paul Harrington, the director of the center.

For many city youths, state and municipal summer jobs programs are often their first foray into the world of work. And that experience helps them to gain the “soft skills” that foster success, such as communicating professionally, showing up on time, meeting deadlines, and collaborating with co-workers. Low-income youths are less likely to live in households with a working adult. As a result, they have fewer opportunities to see adults modeling those positive traits and fewer chances to find jobs through social contacts, Mr. Harrington said.

“The labor market, at its essence, is a social institution—it is based on a network of relationships,” Mr. Harrington said. “Your friend knows about a job at Burger King; he can get you in there. And the kind of resources and networks that kids of lower incomes have are much more diminished than the higher-income kids.”

Data Overview: Summer Jobs for Youths

Connections to School

While the vast majority of youths in municipal summer jobs still work in nonprofits, government offices, and parks and recreation departments, there’s a growing trend of placing students at private companies, particularly in science- and technology-related fields and other areas that provide teens with work experiences that connect to what they are doing in school.

San Diego started a program 11 years ago to place high school and college students in internships in high-growth life science and biotech industries. While only about 40 to 45 slots are available each summer, officials with the San Diego Workforce Partnership say demand is high. Between 300 and 350 students apply annually to work on cutting-edge research in organizations like the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

Educators say that summer employment opportunities also need to be connected to efforts in schools to close achievement gaps between middle- and upper-income students and their low-income peers.

Bolgen Vargas, the superintendent of the Rochester, N.Y., school district, said the disparities between urban youths and their suburban peers are exacerbated in the summer, when most low-income children have far fewer opportunities for enrichment.

Many urban students also rely on schools for meals during the summer months, and some inner-city youths who lack constructive activities in summer are susceptible to harmful behaviors such as becoming involved with gangs, Mr. Vargas said.

“There is no other time in the lives of minority and poor children in the nation where the opportunity gap is so widened than during the summer time,” Mr. Vargas said.

To help combat that gap in his city, Mr. Vargas said the school system will hire 100 students to work in the district’s library, information technology department, and communications department. Those jobs will add to ones provided by local businesses, including Wegmans, the supermarket chain which hires a large number of the city’s teens year-round and during the summer. The district will also provide enrichment activities for 12,000 students, age 3 through 12th grade, he said.

Mr. Fischer, the Louisville mayor, said his goal is to have every company in his city participate in the SummerWorks program that started four years ago with 200 youth jobs.

“It’s not charity,” he said. “You’re hiring somebody, and you’re contributing to community-building. Now, in the post-Ferguson, post-Baltimore era, it’s more important than ever that kids—especially kids that don’t have the connections to get these jobs—see that there is a bigger world out there, that’s got a lot of opportunities.”

Timothy Mahan, 19, experienced the corporate world for the first time in 2012 through a SummerWorks placement in the human resources department at Thornton’s, a gas and convenience store business headquartered in Louisville.

Career Exploration

Mr. Mahan used that summer job to explore his interest in information technology, learning how to trouble-shoot computers, perform printer maintenance, and set up software programs. He stayed on beyond the program’s seven weeks and worked for the company part-time during the following school year.

“It was fantastic because not only did I get that corporate culture experience, I was able to see how my future would look if I continued to work in it,” said Mr. Mahan, who remains as a part-time employee while he studies computer information systems at the University of Louisville.

In Baltimore, the scene of major protests and riots in April over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray who died after being arrested by police, city officials face a shortage of summer jobs for youths.

The city’s two major summer programs, YouthWorks and Hire One Youth Program, provide about 5,000 jobs annually for residents ages 14 to 21.

City businesses have eagerly responded to the call to hire youths. Dionne Pratt, the assistant director of human resources at the Hilton Baltimore Hotel, said that it made sense for the company to participate in both programs to introduce students to different career possibilities in the hospitality industry. The hotel employs about 10 students every summer and has permanently hired four interns for full-time positions in the front office, culinary department, and housekeeping.

“We know that our youth are the next generation of leaders,” she said. “They are very innovative, and we are looking for them to actually be the future [workforce] in our hotels.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 03, 2015 edition of Education Week as Summer-Job Demand Outstrips Opportunities


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