Do you remember a favorite summer job?
Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith does.
“One of my first summer jobs was as a tutoring coordinator at Oregon State University,” Smith says. “I will never forget that experience, which really helped me to become a better communicator and instilled in me the importance of responsibility.”
Whether it is working in a retail store or restaurant, or at a public park or camp, working a summer job is a high school memory for most Americans over the age of 40. However, this rite of passage has become a notably less frequent occurrence for today’s youth.
Nationally, nearly 60 percent of youth aged 16 to 19 held a summer job in 1989, but only about one quarter of the nation’s teens were employed during last summer, according to the Current Population Survey from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Why Has The Summer Job Disappeared for America’s Youth?
There are many reasons. For instance, the present recession has created greater competition from displaced adult workers for temporary jobs that were traditionally held by teenagers. There has also been a significant change in public policy related to summer job funding over the past decade or so. With the noted exception of 2009 stimulus funding, federal dollars for summer employment programs have virtually disappeared from Workforce Investment Act grant funds since 2000.
The reason for this dramatic shift in federal dollars has been due in part to congressional politics. Opponents of federal support for summer employment programs have framed these expenditures as a welfare program. On the other hand, supporters such as Commissioner Smith embrace summer employment as an important job-readiness program for future workers.
“Summer work experience is not just some quaint point of nostalgia,” Smith says. “Those early, entry level work experiences for youth have a huge impact on academic success and future career advancements.”
Smith points to research that backs this conclusion. A 2007 Northeastern University study found that teenagers engaged in summer work during their junior and senior years of high school were more likely to be employed during their first year following high school.
Additionally, summer jobs have historically served as a summertime stimulus for local economies because young workers tend to spend most of the money they earn. Local experience with summer jobs programs suggests that immediate academic gains may also occur.
Summer Employment May Improve Academic Performance
Mayor Sam Adams made improving Portland’s high school completion rate and supporting local youth a cornerstone of his 2008 campaign for office. In 2009, the Adams administration initiated Summer Youth Connect, a suite of programs that provide summer career-exploration activities and academic support to high school-aged youth.
Worksystems Inc. (WSI) manages Summer Youth Connect. According to WSI’s Reese Lord, initial evidence of immediate program impact is promising. “Youth who participate in Summer Youth Connect [based on preliminary data from 2009 and 2010], earn more credits at school and have better attendance than their peers,” he says.
Local Communities Putting Youth To Work
Although federal support for summer employment programs has dried up, many cities have made youth employment a priority and are tapping local tax dollars and private donations to make it happen.
City Connect Detroit raised $1.4 million that will be used to put more than 1,000 young Detroiters to work this summer at local nonprofits and private companies. The City of Boston’s summer jobs goals are even more ambitious. Nearly 10,000 local youth are employed every summer in Boston via a trio of local programs: The Boston Youth Fund, the Boston Private Industry Council summer jobs campaign, and ABCD SummerWorks.
Locally, Portland’s Summer Youth Connect program placed 205 youth in summer jobs. To help encourage more participation by local employers, the city adopted the Youth Career Readiness Business Tax Credit in 2011. This pilot program provides businesses that offer “career readiness” training for youths a $500 business tax credit.
More Support Is Needed
In light of Portland’s high unemployment rate, some have asked: Why should hiring youth be a priority when so many adults are out of work?
Lord believes the long term impact of youth underemployment in Portland could be pronounced. “Because of the recession, we haven’t seen a high rate of baby boomer retirements yet,” Lord notes. “We’ve been lucky so far but we have no bench strength.”
Lord mentions that for years employers have been able to find talented college grads who have migrated to the region for its quality of life. This speaks to the need to invest in our education and workforce system to ensure a homegrown talent pipeline. Without this investment, the direct cost of doing business in Oregon may increase as local employers are forced to pay higher training costs and/or higher worker relocation costs to get the work force they need.
There is also a social cost to not investing in our youth. Without job readiness training explains Lord, “research shows that youth are more likely to get stuck in a long-term cycle of underemployment and society bears higher costs of welfare programs and building more prisons.”
The bottom line for Lord: “We shouldn’t give up on a whole generation of young people.”
What was your most memorable summer job? How do you think providing more summer jobs will impact our local economy?
What's Next: We'll discuss how you can support youth employment as we continue to think about investing in our youth.
Photos: Kristina Fullerton