Tracking the Recession: Stimulus Helps Revive Summer Youth Jobs programs

By: - July 14, 2009 12:00 am

School’s out and young job seekers across the country have a less-than-30-percent chance of finding work. For disadvantaged youths – high school dropouts, teen parents and minors with a criminal record – the odds are worse.

“We’re talking about young adults whose lives are pretty screwed up. They have a tough time finding work even in the best times,” said James M. Golembeski, director of Wisconsin’s Bay Area Workforce Development Board.

In this recession, college graduates, senior citizens and dislocated workers of all ages are snatching up so many low-wage jobs that few are left for youths. On top of that, many of the retail outlets and restaurants that normally hire students during the summer are cutting back or have gone out of business.

But thanks to a $1.2 billion federal stimulus fund, states are revitalizing summer youth programs that have languished over the past decade because of declining federal funding. Allocated to states over a two-year period and then distributed through local workforce agencies, the stimulus program allows states to subsidize jobs and create training programs for 14-to-24-year-olds who come from low-income families and have one or more risk factors, such as foster care, homelessness or teen pregnancy.

Starting this month, states are using the new money to hire young people for jobs as varied as cleaning state parks, scrubbing the decks of docked battleships, assisting in underwater environmental studies and working in offices and hospitals. In addition, most programs squeeze in time for academic assistance, particularly for kids struggling to finish high school.

Despite severe budget gaps, Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) added more than $8 million in state money to $21.1 million in stimulus funds to create a wide variety of summer jobs for 10,000 youths over the next two years. In Wisconsin, Golembeski plans to use his region’s share of stimulus funding to train older youths on interviewing techniques and general workplace skills so they can find permanent work when the economy begins to recover. And in rural Oregon, $3 million in stimulus funding is slated for an innovative engineering project that will employ 1,200 disadvantage youths.

Wisconsin’s youth program starts with a three-week, intensive work-readiness training program. Dubbed Work Certified, the program is the brainchild of Florida’s workforce agency, but Wisconsin is the first to try it out on youths. Those who complete the program will get a certificate that is widely recognized by local businesses and should help them land a permanent job. They also get a $650 stipend – minimum wage for the three weeks they spent in class. After that, youths can pursue a variety of subsidized summer jobs.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, nearly half of all youths ages 14 to 21 had jobs in 2000. Now fewer than one in three can find work – the lowest youth employment rate since the federal government started tracking youth jobs in 1948.

For every year that teens work, their income in their twenties rises 14 percent to 16 percent, said youth employment expert Andrew Sum of Northeastern University . In addition, research shows that girls who have jobs are much less likely to become pregnant and boys are less likely to get involved in property crimes and drug use. High school graduation rates also go up for kids with work experience.

Research also shows that increased youth joblessness can contribute to flare-ups in crime and gang activity during the summer months. “I figure if we keep even one youth from being incarcerated, we’ve saved the state at least $90,000. That’s a pretty good return on investment,” Golembeski said.

In rural parts of the country, kids have the added problem of isolation. “They have no grasp of career possibilities. They need to experience something outside of their little towns,” said Kris Latimer, chief of Oregon Workforce Alliance .

Eighty percent of Oregon is sparsely populated and public transportation is non-existent, making it nearly impossible for kids to travel to and from a work program. So Latimer’s group created a sleepover work camp in the Cascade Mountains where 1,200 youths will work on a research team building a remote-operated vehicle for underwater and volcanic exploration.

This summer, because thousands of middle-income teens and their families have been hit hard by the recession, critics in many communities are arguing the stimulus money should not be reserved just for low-income kids with problems.

“There are a lot of questions about why middle-class kids can’t be part of the program,” said Nancy Snyder, president of Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Corporation , which administers the state’s youth jobs program. “I’m really sensitive to that and try to give guidance to non-eligibles on how to look for a summer job.” Although the stimulus money is welcomed, advocates say that the $1.2 billion will help only a fraction of at-risk youths and that because summer programs have been dormant for so long, states will be hard-pressed to quickly create high-quality programs because most of their business contacts are no longer available.

“We’re encouraging folks to think of the stimulus as a building block for the future,” said Mala Thakur, director of the National Youth Employment Coalition . For the fiscal year that ended in June, states received $950 million for youth job creation under the Workforce Investment Act; next year the federal budget proposal is $924 million, in addition to the stimulus funding.

The severity and duration of this recession does not bode well for youth job creation, which Sum said has lagged several years behind adult jobs in previous economic downturns. “Don’t expect any growth in teen jobs until 2012,” he said.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.