Venture: No jobs, no job skills for lots of black teens

June 20, 2011

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Young men participate in a Chicago Urban League mentoring program.

Updated numbers on jobless claims come out this week, and they'll shed more light on the outlook for employment. It's clear one group continues to struggle in that area.

Nearly half of black teenagers in Illinois are unemployed. In Chicago the number is even worse: 89 percent don't have work.  A stagnant economy, under-resourced communities and lack of opportunities are all factors. Not getting work skills at an early age can be an economic disadvantage for a lifetime.

Kenyatta Lockett is 19 and works in the stockroom at a small grocery store on East 79th Street.

LOCKETT: I'm looking for a summer job. I'm trying to look for a summer job because this is only temporary.

Lockett says it's hard to find a BETTER job because she dropped out of high school.

But now she's enrolled in a GED and transitional job program to get back on track.

The high unemployment numbers for her demographic disappoint Lockett.

LOCKETT: I think it makes us look bad because we're supposed to set examples for other people. For people that are a younger generation than us.

Lockett says she regrets dropping out of high school. She has friends in similar predicaments, products of Chicago's high dropout rate and vainly looking for work.

Experts say that lack of education figures mightily. So do segregated communities with few job opportunities.

Andrea Zopp is head of the Chicago Urban League.

She contrasts her own stable, retail-thriving neighborhood of Beverly with other parts of the city.

ZOPP: My kids when they went to look for jobs, could find a part-time job within a couple of miles of the house. You take a kid living in Englewood or kid living in Roseland, there's not that economic engine there.

Zopp says part-time jobs allow young people to be involved in their communities- in a positive way. That's top of mind for those looking to help head off an uptick in youth crime when the weather is warm.

Zopp's pushing local businesses to do summer hiring. A company may need a storeroom cleaned out or a landscaping company may need extra seasonal help. The message Zopp gives business owners is that it's relatively cheap to bring in some summer employees.

And it's critical. Contrast 89 percent unemployment for black Chicago teens with 72 percent for white teens.

ZOPP: The issue is our young people are sort of at the bottom of the food chain when it comes to getting jobs.

William Rodgers agrees.

He's a professor and economist at Rutgers University. He's looked at ways in which early work helps a teenager later on.

RODGERS: In this day and age with our service economy, it's teaching you what we call the soft skills. It's teaching you about punctuality, it's teaching you about when you're interacting with someone, you're looking at them with a straight eye, it's teaching you about wearing those pants up around your waist with a belt.

Research shows a  lack of those soft skills…and other job experience…sets a young person up for a harder time getting into the job market after high school, as well as high teen pregnancy and a greater chance of involvement with the criminal justice system.

And it appears that the disadvantages linger.  

A 1994  labor journal study showed that high school seniors who worked 20 hours a week were earning 22 percent more than their peers six to nine years later.

ambi: Those are olives

It's a Friday afternoon and about 20 black male teens file into a room, stacking their plates with pizza. They are part of a mentoring program sponsored by the Chicago Urban League. They're also taught job readiness skills.

JONES: My name is Romaro Jones. I attend Paul Robeson High School. I play sports: football, baseball, track.

He's 18,  and has yet to find a summer job.

JONES: It seems like every time I go out for a job, it seems like I don't meet the criteria that they want That's what it seems like to me - I don't know why.

He predicts what happens if his peers don't work.

JONES:  Everybody gonna be outside on the block doing illegal stuff cause they ain't got nothing else to do.

Some of the guys are applying for a job through the City of Chicago, which expects to hire about 14,000 youth this summer. That's down from 18,000 jobs last year.  

Mike Moss sees the benefits to individuals and neighborhoods when kids work.

He owns property in Englewood. When he started rehabbing, he began to worry about the all the young people around.

MOSS: It was late in the evening and then I started hearing gunshots and I was like, 'Are you serious?' And so I told my wife, once we get through with the building and get the apartments ready, we're going to carve out these basements.

In that basement, he's planning to start a job training program for about 50 youth.

MOSS: I've been doing a survey with the parents, a lot of the parents don't have plans for their children this summer.

The teens will punch in for six hours a day and learn some skills, like how to manage money and how to go out on painting jobs.

He says he'll pay them out of his own pocket. Moss knows it's small, but he hopes it's an effective bridge in a larger economic divide.

I'm Natalie Moore.

And I'm Cate Cahan.