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Chicago Defender-Help wanted to reverse cycle of teen unemployment

By Andrea L. Zopp

Growing up as a teenager in Rochester, N.Y., having a summer job was a rite of passage for me and my peers. You didn’t have to get lucky to find one; all you had to do was look for one. We were eager to work and, even though we lacked experience, retailers and professionals were glad to have us. The objective was to gain experience and build a work ethic around taking instruction, earning and saving our own money.

The teen years are formative in the world of work. Today’s teenagers are just as eager as we were to find jobs. Sadly, that legacy has nearly been lost in the African American community.

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson introduced his “War on Poverty” legislation to lift all ships. Fast-forward to 2014, and we are faced with some undisputed truths: If you’re young, Black and especially if you’re male and poor, you’re among the least likely to be employed.

Nationally, the employment rate for Black teens in 2012 was 18 percent. In Illinois, it was just under 16 percent, which puts the state in the top 10 for lowest teen employment. In Chicago, the numbers are worse, with 11 percent employment among Black teens. Only 8 percent of Black males worked that year, and among those from the poorest households ($20,000 or less income), just 4 percent were employed.

Those figures are from the report “The Power of a Job – Youth Employment Builds the Future,” by the Alternative Schools Network. In January, the Chicago Urban League convened government officials, educators, researchers and teens to talk about the stubborn and alarming decline in teen employment. Many of the teens who testified at the hearing said they were looking for year-round jobs to support themselves and their families.

Here’s why this is so important: Today’s youth are tomorrow’s workforce. Now is the time when they should be plotting their field of study around chosen career paths. We know from experience that young people who are idle are more likely to become involved in gang and violent activity, to use or sell drugs, or to become victims of violence.

Dionne Keyes, a 19-year-old graduate of Kenwood Academy, agrees that idleness is a big problem for teens. Keyes participated last summer in The Greencorps Program, an initiative facilitated by the Chicago Urban League, which provided jobs in green technology fields to youth ages 16 to 19.

“Greencorps was an amazing experience,” Keyes said. “It helped me with savings. It helped me be more aware of my surroundings and the environment.”

During the six-week program, she spent time building bicycles at Fenger High School – “from out of the box,” she said – and then she and other teens in the program rode their bikes to several neighborhoods to work in community gardens and forest preserves. In addition to earning $163 every two weeks, Keyes strengthened her resume and her financial literacy.

“It helped me be more aware of saving and be more aware about how to spend my money,” Keyes said, explaining that every week, Greencorps mentors led the teens through computer-based instruction on managing finances. “With the job I have now, I’m actually saving money for a car.” Keyes is now working at a retail store near her home in the West Pullman neighborhood, earning between $200 and $300 a week, she said.

“I think it’s a great way, especially in the summer, to keep teens out of the streets because they have something to look forward to every morning when they wake up so they’re not hanging out on the streets,” Keyes said of the experience. “It made me proud that I was working.”

Dionne was among the lucky ones who got a helping hand last summer. She said many of her peers lack the confidence to apply for programs such as One Summer Chicago, a joint initiative between the city and county. Her advice: “Keep pushing; ask for help,” Keyes said. “A helping hand can get you a long way, as it did with me.”

Those of us who truly care about young people and the future of our workforce have an obligation to make sure that many more youth have access to summer jobs. Private employers: It costs just $2,000 to hire a teen for the summer. Commit to hiring one this year. It’s an investment that will pay a lifetime of dividends.

Andrea L. Zopp is president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. For more information about the Chicago Urban League visit www.thechicagourbanleague.org.

Originally published in the Chicago Defender on March 5, 2014