For teen job-seekers, summer again offers dismal prospects

By Megan Woolhouse
Globe Staff / May 17, 2011

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The number of teens holding summer jobs in Massachusetts and across the country is expected to match or be even less than last year’s record lows, with only about 1 in 4 teens finding work, according to research by Northeastern University.

Just 26 percent of US teens held jobs last summer, the lowest youth employment rate since World War II, and this year youth advocates are scrambling to fund job opportunities amid federal cutbacks and a shaky private-sector recovery.

The economy’s slow recovery has forced many unemployed adults and financially struggling retirees to take part-time and seasonal jobs once favored by teens. Federal stimulus funds that paid to put nearly 2,000 Massachusetts teenagers to work were eliminated this year. And the Legislature, facing its own budget deficit, is weighing funding cuts for youth employment programs of as much as $2 million.

“The recession was awful for people who are unemployed, but it’s a depression right now in the youth jobs sector,’’ said Lew Finfer, an organizer at the statewide Youth Jobs Coalition, a nonprofit umbrella group that advocates for funding. “You can’t get much worse than this.’’

No one needs to tell that to 17-year-old Rebecca Valmond. The senior at Dorchester Academy has applied for jobs at more than 20 companies and nonprofit organizations, without success. Valmond said if she cannot find a way to earn money, she may need to reconsider attending Bridgewater State University in the fall, her top choice.

“It’s so discouraging,’’ Valmond said. “I’m just getting one rejection after another.’’

According to the Northeastern report, the national employment rate among teens fell 40 percent from 2000 to 2010 for teens between the ages of 16 and 19. The report, which tracked youth employment using newly released federal data, said employment rates fell for nearly every age group 54 and younger in the last 10 years, but most dramatically among teenagers between the ages of 16 and 19.

There were also indications of a continued downward trend, said Andrew Sum, a coauthor of the report and director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. In the first three months of this year, the teen employment rate averaged 25.7 percent, lower than last year’s 26.2 percent employment rate during the same period, according to the report.

Sum said low-income youth are hit the hardest, statewide and nationally, because they live in areas that already have high unemployment and fewer jobs.

“It’s not just that the rates are falling, but that these are the lowest rates we’ve ever seen,’’ Sum said. “The size of these declines has been incredible.’’

Governor Deval Patrick recently announced $6 million in statewide funding for youth jobs, but it won’t be enough to make up the gap. And in Boston, city officials said they will use $4.3 million to fund youth job programs — the same level as last year — and have undertaken an effort to get private businesses to hire more young people. A rally is scheduled to be staged in the city’s financial district next week.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who plans to speak at the rally, said that John Hancock Insurance, State Street Corp., the city’s largest hospitals, and many other businesses hire hundreds of teens during the summer, but room for improvement remains. Last year, about 10,000 summer jobs were created in Boston.

“We need to stay focused on industries that have not stepped up to the plate,’’ Menino said. “We still need more.’’

Conny Doty, who is director of youth jobs and community services for the city, said Boston-based Fidelity Investments, for example, has not participated in city youth hiring programs in her 16 years of recruiting funders.

Adam Banker, a spokesman for Fidelity, said the company supports a number of youth programs in Boston and “certainly will consider this program.’’

Dan Gelbtuch, an organizer at the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corporation, a nonprofit in Uphams Corner, said it typically employs 25 city youth during the summer, jobs funded by the city and state. He is not sure whether he will have to cut positions this year, but described the jobs as a lifeline for inner-city youth.

“This is their first opportunity to be in a work setting and to be held accountable, to write a résumé,’’ he said. “These are specific skills, but they also learn how to act professionally. It’s essential for their career growth and development.’’

Gelbtuch said nearly all the teens he has ever employed have used some portion of their incomes to help their families pay for heating, groceries, or rent.

Funding cuts also put a strain on nonprofits that traditionally rely on private funding.

Andrea Kaiser, executive director of Bird Street Community Center in Dorchester, said the center typically employs 150 youth, but she has had more than 600 applicants this year. Last summer, she said, she went door to door to a dozen small-business owners and asked them to employ a teen, leading to five hires.

“You’ve got everybody cutting, everybody taking fewer kids, and more kids applying for jobs,’’ she said. “I’ve got to find a way to make up the funding. I can’t say no to these kids.’’

Megan Woolhouse can be reached at