City's job program fights to keep pace

National teen employment has fallen to pre-World War II levels, according to a study of census data released from Northeastern University this month, and although the overall picture in Massachusetts may be rosier, Mayor Thomas Menino's summer job program has become more important than ever for the city's young people.

"The real problem here is the reduction of retail jobs for teenagers in the last few years," said Neil Sullivan, director of the Boston Private Industry Council (BPIC). "As recently as the year 2000 that was a natural youth employer in this country and that has contracted as much as 40 percent. It never bounced back."

That statistic became real for 17-year-old Reggie Duplessy of Codman Square as he made his was from Hot Topic to Target to Stop & Shop, Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks and so on, dropping off applications at nearly 15 places and only getting one interview. Duplessy didn't get hired after talking with Target, but he did eventually find a job at Sovereign Bank through the help of BPIC. Now he spends 30 hours a week transferring old files into a new filing system for minimum wage, $8 an hour.

"It's pretty boring, but I get a good check," he said. "It's difficult to find a job in retail if you don't have any help. Retail gets a lot of applications on a daily basis and for them to just look at you is kinda hard."

Sixteen-year-old Joshua Gaston is still searching for his first job. He said he has worked with a job counselor at his school, attended a job fair and filled out several applications so far. On a number of mornings he said he walks through neighborhoods and applies to stores along the way.

"I still don't got a job," said Gaston. "Not everybody gets hired over the summer."

According to Joe McLaughlin, co-author of the Northeastern study, national teen employment rates fell from 51.4 percent in June of 2000 to 37.1 in June of this year, a drop of 14.3 percentage points. Massachusetts isn't doing quite as bad, but the numbers are dipping.

Using an average of the summers of 2006 and 2007 (to compensate for the state's smaller sample size in the census), Massachusetts' rate was 52 percent, a 10-point drop from 62 percent in 1999-2000. This ranks the state under leading states in the mid-west such as the Dakotas and Minnesota with percentages in the high 60s, but far above those in the South such as Mississippi at 28.5 percent and Alabama at 29.3.

"It's impacting all teens," said McLaughlin.

Every year as the budgets for the federal, state and city governments shuffle over desks in the council and the legislatures, youth groups crowd into chambers with decision-makers to clamor for more funding. And several lawmakers take their side, arguing that more summer and year-round teen jobs would provide everything from a higher-skilled workforce to a drop in youth violence.

Federal money has shrunk to minimal levels since it was "Gingriched" back in the late 90s, a by-product of the "Contract With America." State money has made a comeback under Gov. Deval Patrick's administration, and Boston has benefited from a strong commitment to teen jobs from Mayor Thomas Menino from the day he took office.

During the height of the Boston Miracle days in the 90s, Menino's summer jobs campaign found over 11,000 teens jobs each summer, taking advantage of federal money for some 2,000 of them. Last year the program found jobs for around 9,500 teens, including just over 4,000 wrested from the private sector by BPIC and a direct appeal from Menino, some 3,500 from the Boston Youth Fund and over 1,000 doled out by ABCD in a lottery. This year, the city predicts a number a bit higher, but demand is growing too.

Some 7,753 teens applied for Boston Youth Fund (BYF) jobs on the Hope Line this year according to data from the city, and around 3,600 positions were actually filled. That's up from 6,135 applicants in 2004. Also, GOTCHA, a collaborative of six groups and 25 worksites, held it's largest job fair ever this year with around 270 visitors, according to Andrea Kaiser from Bird Street Community Center.

Despite what many appreciate as one of the best summer jobs programs in the country and the myriad of excellent programs youth can end up in, coordinators from several youth jobs programs around Dorchester did cite a few recurring problems for some teens--many of whom started work last week.

A small percentage of teens who secured jobs weren't able to keep them after they found out they would have to go to summer school this year. This year the letters from Boston Public Schools arrived in early July, just as teens were being hired.

Boston Youth Fund guarantees a new job placement for any participant in their program if they call back, and many of the community-oriented non-profits that hire are flexible enough to let kids skip the first part of the day or work in the evening, but the private sector and non-profits that work outdoors were less flexible by nature.

"This is the one glitch we haven't figured out a way around," said Valerie Burns of Boston Natural Areas Network. "When we interview the kids we do ask them about summer school. A lot of the kids think something will happen, but in some cases they're surprised."

Burns said BNAN gets 38 kids a year and around four or five end up opting out for summer school, but she wasn't aware that all BYF kids can get a new placement if they call back.

"What we try to do is find them a job that will accommodate the problem," said Sullivan of his organization's work in the private sector. "We're gentle, but we remind them that it's important to pass their courses."

Another potential problem is how well the program reaches at-risk teens. The city-run program only recently began releasing any demographic information on its participants, and very little of that data relates to economic, educational or family status - indicators that could reveal hardship.

Dorchester's teens mopped up the most jobs of any neighborhood in the program last year at 35 percent, with Roxbury in second place. As to race, black teens took the majority at 46 percent, whites 22 percent, Latinos 21 and Asians 8. But other data, such as the number of Department of Youth Services, court-involved, or dropout teens apparently aren't collected or analyzed, nor is economic status.

"We don't specifically target at-risk youth. All you have to have done is be ages 15 to 17 and call to register on the Hope Line," said BYF director Christy Wainwright. "When we're contacted by a social worker or something like that we may make a special effort."

Anecdotally speaking, many Dorchester organizations put in a great deal of work to pull in more at-risk teens, but not all of them have the resources to do so.

"You have to be on your kids because it's not an easy process… they may not have that parental support," said Ra'Shaun Nalls, a Grove Hall youth worker for Project Right. "The young people who wait to the last minute get left out in all summer jobs."

The city program requires a great deal of documentation, including proof of address, report card, parental consent, birth certificate, social security card, and a worker's permit. The Hope Line was open for a month this year during part of February and May, but it still required fore thought, while many teens tend to procrastinate.

Places like DotWell, Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative and Bird Street do the work to get jobs for the teens they come into contact with. But another set of groups depend on the city to randomly assign them workers.

Additionally, some workers report teens who lack confidence in the system.

"I think a lot of the kids feel like it's not worth it because they know the numbers. They know there are more teens than jobs," said Angela Smith of DotWell.

"The biggest issue is really, the 7,000 kids that apply to the Hope Line is a drop in the bucket," said Ros Everdell, GOTCHA coordinator. "And even the kids that are served there are about half that call."