In early January, the Raleigh City Council will begin the process of constructing a new annual budget. While deliberations begin in the dead of the winter, council members and staff need to turn their thoughts to summer. Specifically, the role summer teenage employment plays in ensuring a strong local workforce and shared economic opportunity.
For many of us, summertime is when we first encountered the world of work. No matter how backbreaking or boring it was, it taught us about being accountable, dependable and productive. We learned how to work with others and meet deadlines. We discovered what it took to get – and keep – a job.
Today that experience is more the exception than the rule.
In 2000, close to half of all work-eligible teenagers had some kind of job. Today, that number is just 25 percent. Summer jobs for 16- to 19-year-olds are down 12 percent from just last year. The reality is that while the economy is adding jobs since the Great Recession, the opportunities for young workers are not keeping pace.
Jobs in the teen years are especially critical for young people in lower-income brackets. For youth from households without a history of steady employment, jobs provide experience with employers, needed income and networks for future employment. Research also shows that teens who work evenings or summers are more likely to find better jobs and earn more money. Preparing young people for their futures can’t all happen in our schools. Part of being ready for the workforce is understanding what it means to work. There’s one place that happens: on the job.
While youth employment is a national challenge, Raleigh has fared worse than most. In recent rankings from the Brookings Institution, Raleigh ranks 70th out of the top 100 metropolitan areas in employment for 16- to 19-year-olds and 43rd for 20- to 24-year-olds. Between 2000 and 2012, Raleigh suffered the 85th worst drop in the country. Those are shocking numbers for a city that thinks of itself as a great place to get ahead.
A common refrain in Raleigh is the need to attract the “Millennial” generation. That’s a smart strategy. We just can’t forget that many of that generation already call Raleigh home. They are growing up in our communities – they don’t need to be convinced to come. What they need is workforce experience.
My children have benefited from the networks and connections my wife and I have developed after decades in the workforce – networks that aren’t available to many kids. Who will open the doors for them? This is a challenge that Raleigh can tackle. Our civic, education and business leadership has a track record of coming together on important issues. Four specific strategies should fuel our efforts:
1 Get serious about Raleigh’s Summer Youth Employment Program. Raleigh has an excellent existing Summer Youth Employment Program that provides job experience and mentorship for 15- to 18-year-olds. The challenge is scale. A similar program in Louisville will provide 2,500 jobs for teenagers this summer; Baltimore hires 5,000 14- to 21-year-olds in its two summer programs. The number in Raleigh? 170.
2 Implement a YouthBuild program. YouthBuild is federally funded education and job training program for out-of-school youth between 18 and 21. The program recognizes that some students require an approach that simultaneously builds academic and work skills. Through YouthBuild, students earn both a high school diploma or GED and an industry-recognized work credential in a field such as construction, health care or information technology. There are 260 urban and rural sites in 46 states, including two in North Carolina. Raleigh should become the third.
3 Enlist local churches to lead. Churches are critical threads in Raleigh’s community fabric. They provide leadership and a commitment to meeting individual and community needs. Many churches are working with organizations like Jobs for Life on job training for their members. A coordinated effort among our city’s churches focused on youth employment access would provide focus and grassroots leadership.
4 Catch up to South Carolina on apprenticeships. Our neighbor to the south has made major strides in connecting young people to jobs through apprenticeships, where participants earn wages while training for high-skill jobs. Apprenticeships there have grown from 777 in 2006 to over 4,600 in 2014. While we have the NC Triangle Apprenticeship Program, there are too few businesses and young people involved. One key difference: South Carolina’s legislature provides tax incentives to encourage participation by local businesses.
In Raleigh, we love a ranking. It’s time to add to that list. Raleigh should aspire to be the city that best equips its young people for their futures and the city’s continued vitality.
Early this past summer, I received a text from my son: “First paycheck today.” He was out of town working his first paid summer job. Let’s make the “paycheck text” an experience in every household. On this, our ambition should rank second to none.
J.B. Buxton lives in Raleigh with his wife and three children. He works with states, organizations and foundations on state public education policy and strategy.