How to Get Disadvantaged Teenagers on a Career Track
The teen unemployment rate clocked in at 20.9 percent in March, according to the latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it shows few signs of abating. It’s enough for Boston economist Andrew Sum to call this particular moment a crisis for teen employment, which will hurt young people’s future earnings and career prospects. “The kids who need work the most are getting it the least,” Sum says. “That’s why the problem deserves more attention.”
Other cities and not-for-profits run similar summer-jobs programs for teens, though not all can match Boston’s robust, expansive program. The District of Columbia government, for example, has run a summer-jobs program for decades, but it ran into well-chronicled mismanagement issues in the late 2000s. Under the current mayor, the city jobs program has tried to fix its woes by serving slightly fewer students and placing them in more fulfilling jobs, says Gerren Price, D.C.’s deputy director of youth programs. Last year, D.C. hired about 14,000 public school students for its summer-jobs program; fewer than 1,000 of those students work in the private sector. The majority instead work for not-for-profits, community organizations, day-care centers, or government agencies. “It depends on what the need is for employers,” Price says.
A smaller not-for-profit called Urban Alliance also runs summer-jobs programs in D.C., Baltimore, and Chicago, serving roughly 350 students a year. Its founder started the program in the mid-1990s, after he volunteered at an Anacostia high school in D.C. and realized that the students’ greatest need was finding after-school and summer work. “What differentiates our program is that we don’t take the cream-of-the-crop student. We aim to help people under-the-radar, the ones who are coasting by or the average student, and place them in top-notch places,” says Wendy-Ann Dixon-DuBois, the group’s director of outreach and communications.
Economists like Sum are fans of summer-jobs programs because they give students work experience, teach them communication skills, and allow them to earn some cash. But Robert Lerman, an economics professor at American University, argues that such summer-jobs programs need more evaluation and rigor: attention to both the results they produce as well as some way to quantify what the students learn. “I would like to see some kind of certification for the students that shows they’re learning employable skills,” he says.
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