Where Did All the Summer Jobs Go?

summer jobAs a 13-year-old I couldn't wait to turn 14. Turning 14 meant getting a summer job and having a little cash in my hands. Not to mention, I'd be gaining experience in the work world. But did turning 14 really mean all this? No. When I first began looking for a summer job, I consulted my school's career counselor who assists students in finding jobs. She told me to go to The One-Stop Career Center.

A few friends and I went to the center hoping that we could gain some assistance in looking for the summer jobs we had been endlessly searching for. But instead we were told that they could not be of assistance to us. They told us that they helped "older youth." None of us were in the "older youth" category so they couldn't help us "younger youth." The One-Stop Career Center was supposed to help everyone ages 14-21. We left after a lady at the front desk suggested that we hunt for jobs in newspapers, at McDonalds, or at the annual Job Fair.

The Job Fair hardly provided jobs for youth either. They mainly set up mentoring programs for aspiring doctors, lawyers, police officers, and teachers. We did everything that they had suggested we do, and still, we had no jobs. So much for the One-Stop Career Center.

It sounds ridiculous to say this, but those were the good days. Finding a summer job was difficult but if you were one of the lucky ones you eventually found one. I'm almost 16 years old now and summer jobs for teens are even scarcer. A collapse in the economy has displaced so many adult workers in my city that they've all taken the few jobs that were once available to youth. The situation got so bad that my city decided to cancel the annual Job Fair because there weren't any summer jobs at all.

When I researched the problem I learned that a federal law, called the Workforce Investment Act, was affecting my chances to get a job. This program allowed states and local units to decide how federal dollars, intended for job-training programs, were to be spent. When the WIA came into effect in 2000, the number of federally funded summer jobs in my city alone dropped from nearly 800 to 0. That's right. When I say there aren't any summer jobs for us youth, I mean it.

The WIA program got caught slipping. Hope Street Youth Development, a local community organization I'm involved in, researched the program and found out that the WIA-funded summer youth employment services are no longer a part of a stand-alone program. Instead, the money intended for the program went to a year-round program. What's up with that? Not many 14 year olds I know can juggle a year-round job, full-time classes and homework.

This program puzzled me for another reason. They have a "Youth Council" that determines how to spend money but there's no "youth" on the council. A lack of youth presence on a board that is intended to serve us eliminates our voice. Having a Youth Council that has no youth voice is just like asking someone who has lost their taste buds if their lemonade is sweet enough. As if the problem wasn't already bad enough, the House just passed HR 1261, eliminating the federal requirement that Local Workforce Investment Boards have a Youth Council. In approving the Workforce Reinvestment Act and Adult Education Act of 2003, the House also approved plans to eliminate Youth Opportunity Grants (YOG). The YOG program was initiated in 1998 "to saturate" high poverty rural and urban communities with resources to reduce summer unemployment. The last thing we need to do is to scrap Youth Opportunity Grants.

Hope Street youth decided that something had to be done, so through a long direct action campaign, we convinced our Local Workforce Investment Board to create a new job program providing training and jobs for 30 youth. It was a great win for Hope Street youth, but we realized it was only a small solution to a very large problem. Nationally the current youth employment rate stands around 18 percent for all youth. So we did what any good youth group would do when faced with massive odds. We took action.

On June 2nd, 2003, members of Hope Street Youth Development involved in National People's Action, a national network of adult and youth community groups, went to Capitol Hill to hold a senate briefing on the Workforce Investment Act and how it is failing our youth. Over 150 people attended the Senate Briefing on Jobs and Youth, including 20 Senate staffers, 3 reporters and 4 allied organizations. We issued a report outlining the problem and made recommendations on how to solve it.

When I couldn't find a summer job I thought at first it was only my problem, but as I began to look around I realized that it's a national problem. Unless youth from across the country speak up and demand that more resources be put towards summer employment, there will be no opportunities now or in the years to come.

If lawmakers insist on denying us employment, this summer you won't find us on the clock. You may find us on the streets.

Ti'Juana Hardwell, 16, lives in Wichita, Kansas.

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