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Youth Out in the Cold on Summer Jobs

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Youth Out in the Cold on Summer Jobs

Teens loiter near their high school in Chicago. (Photo by Sarah Hadley)

Summer vacation has arrived, and many teens are now on the hunt for a summer job. These jobs are not just about earning money. For some, they mean the difference between building a solid base for the future, or a life on the streets. But finding a job this summer in a tough economy may be a struggle. For Chicago Public Radio, Eilee Heikenen-Weiss has more.

Nineteen-year-old Jerone Thadison sits at his family's kitchen table on the west side of Chicago, reminiscing about how at age 13, money was always on his mind.

THADISON: Growing up, we had tough times paying for the bills, so I actually used to sneak and shoot dice and win some of the drug dealers' money and bring the money home to help my mother pay for the bills. My mother didn't approve of it, but at the time, if that's the only income, she didn't have no choice but to take it if we wanted to keep a house.

Now a young adult, Thadison's enrolled in college. But things might not have turned out this way. He says he could have easily ended up like his friends.

THADISON: A lot of them actually, are in jail right now.

So what's different between Thadison and the others? Thadison can site one thing for sure:
THADISON: I got a job at the Boys and Girls Club but other kids you know, who also may have wanted to support their families—they didn't have a job at all so, that's when most of them started selling drugs.
You see, the year beforehand, Thadison and his friends watched older kids in the community get jobs with Mayor Daley's Summer Jobs Program—KidStart. When summer came the next year, things didn't go as planned.
THADISON: Everybody filled out the KIDSTART application, but everybody didn't get a job. Although the city's KidStart budget has increased through the years, the program will still turn down the majority of applicants this summer. Mary Ellen Caron is the commissioner of the Department of Children and Youth Services.

CARON: 40,000 young people applied, and in our program, there are 18,000 jobs. So there will be 22,000 who applied that will not have a job through our program.

Those remaining 22,000 will join people like 19-year-old Britanny McLin.

MCLIN: I been lookin' all up and down downtown, by my house up north, you know, little restaurants, like as far as McDonalds, Burger King, clothing stores, everywhere basically.

McLin isn't the only one striking out. Andy Sum, Director of Northeastern's Center for Labor Market Studies, says a record number of teens will be out of work this summer.

SUM: Our model forecasts that this summer, approximately only 34% of the nation's teens will be able to obtain some type of employment during the June-August period, but that 34 percent would represent the lowest summer employment rate in the last 60 years.

According to Andy Sum, the teen employment picture will remain grim until the economy starts to clear up. Still, he thinks the federal government and private sector could do more.

sounds of grocery store

Cermak Produce on North and Fairfield doesn't advertise job openings, but co-owner Frank Mondane gets about 30 applicants a week anyway.

MONDANE: We have a pretty good pool to pick out of. Applications I've been seeing coming in lately have been 5, 6, 8 years experience on the job.

Even so, Mondane favors character over experience.

MONDANE: Age is not really a big factor. I mean I've had people I've hired that are very young, and they're very aggressive, and they do a good job.

But there aren't many openings at Cermak's because turnover is low.
When there's no legitimate job, some young people turn to the underground economy. Hollis Hutchins just graduated from high school. He's already working at Starbucks, but understands why others are tempted to deal drugs.

HUTCHINS: The economy is so messed up now, and it's like I said. Everybody wants to live comfortably—whether you want to be filthy rich, or you just want to be able to go out and have a nice fifteen dollar meal and not have to worry about if you have gas money to get home after you eat the meal. And you got these drug dealers out here that's makin' it look so easy!

Hutchin's best friend, 19-year-old Rodney Orange echoes that.

ORANGE: I mean it's so hard, cause you got people out here who's trying—like us—get jobs and make an honest way out of life, looking at them like man, it gets to the point where, I do this, you know what I'm sayin'?

In some of the tougher Chicago neighborhoods, the phrase ‘long hot summer' isn't just about the weather. Jack Wuest is Executive Director of the Alternative Schools Network. Wuest and other educators worry youth unemployment levels could mean more violence over the summer.

WUEST: The last big riot in this country was in 1992 with Rodney King and the kind of eruption that happened in Los Angeles. And the response was, George Bush's father worked with congress and increased summer jobs spending. I think we're all on real thin ice with this stuff.

Federal funding for specific programs like Job Corps has remained steady recently. But overall, funding for youth jobs has been in decline. Bob Taggart was the head of youth programs during the Carter administration. Getting youth into the workforce is essential, he says—but not because it reduces crime all that much. These jobs foster a culture of work. And that leads to more employed adults.

TAGGART: It's just simply something we should be doing, we need to be doing, and why it takes unrest on the streets to goad us into doing what we should do is beyond me.

THADISON: They tell us to follow our dreams, but they don't provide us with enough resources, there's not enough resources to help us follow our dreams.

Jerone Thadison considers himself lucky. He's got a job at the Adler Planetarium. When summer ends, Thadison says he'll return to Chicago State to study criminal justice and pursue his dream of working in law enforcement.

Music Button: Radio Citizen, “The Hop”, from the CD Berlin Serengeti, (Ubiquity records)

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