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Last Summer’s Teen Jobs Crisis: Lessons from the Ground

Matt Poland, MatchBridge - Posted March 26, 2012


Several Spotlight commentators have documented how the summer of 2011 was one of the worst on record for youth employment. While the numbers alone are troubling, I’ve seen firsthand how damaging this crisis was for low-income youth, whose inexperience, police records, or other disadvantages made them less attractive to employers than other candidates.

“We really can’t hire someone with a criminal background to work in our store,” a retail store hiring manager told me recently, referring to a young man with a minor drug offense applying for a stock position. Although he’s trying to get his life back on track and needs a job to do so, many employers won’t hire him because of mistakes he’s made in the past.  

I heard stories like this all summer in my job as director of MatchBridge, a San Francisco non-profit dedicated to investing in youth education, training, and employment. In May, June, and July of 2011, there were 50 to 60 youth at each monthly MatchBridge membership screening day—double the number who came to us in 2010. Many reported having applied to several jobs already without any callbacks. While we were able to place 39 of them in our internship program and find jobs for another 60 over the summer, the rest were out of luck.  

Although these low-income youths are the most in need of jobs, efforts to address youth unemployment are facing considerable challenges. That’s why now is the time for new approaches and new policies that can help get low-income youth back into the labor market.

Historically, subsidized summer employment programs funded primarily with public dollars helped youth overcome the challenges of finding employment. The recent dwindling of public funding has led these programs to shrink significantly. A local example is the Office of Economic and Workforce Development in San Francisco. In 2011, this office only subsidized about 200 summer jobs for youth through city dollars. This is half the roughly 400 placements in 2009, when temporary federal stimulus dollars were available, and barely a quarter of the 700 to 800 annual placements in the 1990s, when San Francisco’s private sector helped fund the program.   

Part of the problem is that, in an environment where funding for these programs is decreasing at the same time need is increasing, we can’t succeed without more private businesses involved. Unfortunately, private-sector business has not yet decided to be a full partner in our efforts.  

Exacerbating this problem is the reluctance of employers to take a chance on those who need jobs the most—people with disabilities, ex-offenders trying to get back on track, the young and inexperienced, and older displaced workers. Many of these people are already poor, and the difficulty of finding a job almost guarantees they will stay poor.  

How can we solve the problem?

One critical piece of the puzzle is to increase collaboration between business, government, and the non-profit sector. Federally mandated local workforce investment boards are supposed to be such collaborations, but in reality the levels of partnership and success are uneven. Better collaboration will improve opportunities, and may help overcome employer misperceptions about low-income and disconnected youth.

In addition, we need policies that can make a difference for unemployed young workers. This includes better incentives for keeping jobs in the U.S., as well as better affirmative action programs that derive from objectives that serve both businesses and society. We should also explore increasing the minimum wage so that families are able to live self-sufficiently.  

Finally, we must look to encouraging efforts already scattered in place across the country. Seattle-King County’s success in helping people achieve self-sufficient wages through public private partnerships for workforce development is one good example, and there are others.

We are far from achieving the critical mass we need to make a difference for the thousands of low-income American youth searching for work, and mimicking what’s working in these exemplary programs could make a real difference.

Government and non-profit leaders have worked hard to make things better for America’s unemployed.  But until we focus on those with the greatest barriers to employment and forge meaningful partnerships with the private sector, our efforts will fall short.

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Matt Poland is the director of MatchBridge.


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