Cloudy Summer Ahead For Teens Seeking Jobs

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With long summer days around the corner, it looks like tens of thousands of New York City youths who rely on public programs to help find a job may be idle while school’s out.

City agencies expect a shortfall in jobs provided by the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). Run by the Department of Youth and Community Development, SYEP provides subsidized entry-level jobs to young people aged 14 to 21 for seven weeks every summer. Each year tens of thousands of applicants are turned away, but last summer the number of applicants hit a record high – and the forecast for this summer is dreary.

“The demand has always been high for youth looking for a job in the summer,” says Greg Rideout, a program officer at the Henry Street Settlement on the Lower East Side, which provides jobs as an SYEP contractor. “But because of better access and raised awareness, the increase of the demand is very high.”

SYEP had 93,750 applicants last year, hitting a new high over the 72,000 who applied in 2006. “The increase is primarily because applicants can apply online now,” said Alan Cheng, director of SYEP. “We also advertise to raise awareness about our program.”

Others see the increase in applications as a sign of the demand for typical SYEP jobs in park maintenance, nonprofit and government offices and summer camps. “I agree that the online application and SYEP advertising can be a factor,” said Anthony Ng, deputy policy director at United Neighborhood Houses of New York, a leader of the Campaign for Summer Jobs. “But the increase in application speaks to the demand. You can’t discount the fact that young people want to work in the summer.” SYEP will accept applications from April 1 through May 18.

The program provided jobs to 41,804 youths last year, about a 20 percent decrease from the 50,499 who had jobs in 1999. In other words, more than 50,000 NYC youngsters who applied were left to find a job somewhere else.

“I had applied to SYEP two summers in a row but I didn’t get picked,” said Bronx teenager Abdul Kamara. “I looked for another job after that but I didn’t get one.”

“I finally got picked last year doing office work, like filing and copying. It kept me off the streets and it felt good getting paid,” he said. “I am applying for it again this year. If I don’t get it, I’ll try looking for another job, but I’ve been through that before.”

With the state budget still under negotiation and cutbacks anticipated, the outlook for many of the youths trying to acquire a job through SYEP is bleak. Cheng says because of citywide budget cuts, he has to cut 2,100 job slots – “but we really don’t know if that number will change until the adopted budget is announced.” Some think even more positions could be lost. “I don’t see the number of cutbacks decreasing,” says Rideout. “In fact there is talk that the number could be as high 7,000 to 8,000 jobs being cut from the program.”

SYEP has experienced considerable funding uncertainty since July 2000 when the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) went into effect and eliminated funds dedicated specifically to summer jobs for youth. Under WIA, the government discontinued funding for stand-alone summer employment programs in favor of a separate, smaller effort that provides year-round employment for in-school youngsters. Federal support for SYEP, which provided almost the program’s entire budget up until 2000, has since plunged by 90 percent, declining from $42.5 million in 1999 to just $3.8 million in federal funding in 2007.

The city and state have stepped up with increased funding to make up for the loss. Last year, more than 93 percent of SYEP’s record high $56.4 million in funding was financed through the state’s Flexible Fund for Family Services as well as money appropriated through the city budget.

Sector analysts like Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, also expect the economic downturn to exacerbate the already bleak outlook. “Nationally the teen labor market has been falling apart,” said Sum, who testified this month at a U.S. House of Representatives labor subcommittee hearing in support of a federally funded summer and year-round youth jobs creation program. “Things are bad and it’s only getting worse. It’s a disaster especially for low-income and minority youths.”

The average employment-to-population rate for 16- to 19-year-olds declined to a record low nationwide in 2007. According to a report prepared by Sum and colleagues for the Congressional hearing, only 35 percent of teens were employed in an average month during 2007 – the lowest annual average employment rate for teens ever recorded since World War II.

In New York City, only 18 percent of all teens were employed in 2006 (the most recent available data), ranking the city last among the nation’s 20 largest cities. In that year the teen unemployment rate – reflecting teens who were actively seeking, but not finding, a job – in the city was 28 percent. The rate for 2007 is pegged at 22 percent, according to Martin Kohli, regional economist for the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. “The rate was higher in the 1990s, but teenagers generally struggle to find a job here more than other areas in the country,” Kohli said.

Teen unemployment is on the uptick nationwide for several reasons, Sum says. Teens are competing for jobs with college graduates and immigrants, both of whom tend to win the competition. Today, there are more 55- to 64-year-olds still in the job market, retiring later in life than in previous years. Also, a growing number of firms are not hiring young teens, citing their lack of work experience and skills. Though the rise in minimum wage does have an effect on the teen labor market, it is not enough to have a significant impact on the current decline in teen employment.

Among ethnic groups, the city unemployment rate is highest among black and Hispanic teens. “We target the areas where the unemployment rate is the highest,” said Cheng. Nearly 70 percent of youths enrolled in SYEP last year were black or Hispanic, and mostly hailed from Brooklyn and the Bronx.

National and local labor market research consistently shows that teens who aren’t working are much more likely to engage in criminal acts and other risky activities.

Jermaine Carnegie, 20, who found a job outside of SYEP channels recently, can attest to that. “If there is nothing to do, if I just sit around, I know that I’m going to jail,” says Carnegie, who acquired a job as a peer counselor at Exalt, a nonprofit organization in downtown Brooklyn.

“I wanted to get a job, but I needed working papers and glasses. I couldn’t afford it, so I had to get money my way,” he said. “Now that I have a job, when I get harassed by the police I show them my timesheet. Working helps me get out of trouble.”

Work experience gained during the high school years also has positive impacts on high school retention and college enrollment rates for black and disadvantaged youths.

“There is a link between the dropout rate and the falling employment rate amongst teens. It is widely advertised that without a diploma or degree, you cannot land a job,” said Evelyn Fernandez-Ketcham, executive director of New Heights Neighborhood Center in Washington Heights, a nonprofit that provides youth workforce development. “Work-based experience helps build real skills development that the youth can apply to life. The school system isn’t doing that. When young people work – and they do want to work – it builds their self-esteem.”

That’s true for Carnegie. “I never thought I could have a job and learn to express myself. I can do anything as long as I put my head to it,” he said. “It’s a good feeling knowing that I can get money without doing any wrong.”

– Abraham Paulos

To read the Center For An Urban Future’s SYEP evaluation from June 2007, “Summer Help,” click here.

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