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A simple fix for helping ensure long-term job stability for at-risk youth

  • Joanna
  • March 23, 2016

For a quick moment, think back to where you developed your work ethic.

If you’re being inundated right now with memories of making pizzas in a hot kitchen, cleaning bathrooms in a local motel, or washing cars on long summer days, you’re certainly not alone. Most employed Americans had their first work experiences as teenagers in low-wage, labor-intensive jobs.

If you appreciate the value of the things you learned during those experiences, then this statistic will probably scare you a bit: The summer teen employment rate now stands at 30 percent — down from 52 percent during the summer months of 1999 and 2000.

The current rate is actually up, a bit, since the Great Recession, but economists don’t expect it to rise much more. And that’s a big problem, because when it comes to getting — and especially keeping — a job, education and skills training are only a small piece of the equation. Simply knowing what it means to do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay is an essential part of being employable.

Yet the vast majority of American teenagers aren’t having this experience. And the numbers are particularly troubling among young people in low-income urban communities. In Philadelphia, for instance, just about 10 percent of black male teens are employed, according to the Center for Labor Markets and Policy, at Drexel University.

“If they don’t work, they don’t learn the lessons of work,” Michael Gritton, the executive director of the summer jobs program KentuckianaWorks, recently told EdWeek. “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.“

When that happens, education and training programs aren’t enough – because only work teaches people how to work.

Numerous studies have shown that early work experiences help teens and young adults develop the soft skills that are crucial to maintaining employment, and that’s a fact that has been recognized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, which is putting more than $800 million behind creating work experiences.

Better news, still: The White House, in a February budget request, asked for billions more to help increase job opportunities for teen-aged Americans. It might seem audacious to make such an expensive request in a time in which Congress is focused on scaling back on spending, but the Obama administration has noted there has been broad bipartisan support for helping more young people begin developing their work histories.

There are already a lot of creative and innovative ideas being floated for how to take advantage of this WIOA focus. In some places, for instance, teens are being matched with entry-level employment opportunities in science, engineering and research institutions.

But the simple fact is that just about any work experience can be beneficial for someone who hasn’t had the opportunity to work before. So while states and local areas would be crazy to turn down opportunities to connect young men and women with high-tech job opportunities, nothing should be taken off the table. Do local municipalities need help keeping city parks clean and maintained? Does the local school district need additional workers to help put together meals during the school year, when the number of children taking advantage of free and reduced lunches rises? Does the state capital need people who can paint curbs and remove snow?

These aren’t glamorous jobs, but they are all the sorts of work opportunities that will go a long way toward helping Americans develop the experiences they need to get better and better jobs as their lives progress.