Cambridge mayor’s summer program employs 950 teens

Originally published Aug. 14, 2014 in the Cambridge Chronicle.

When Cambridge resident Isabelle Morton turned 14, she decided it was about time she had some money of her own.

The only problem? With no job experience, there weren’t many companies hiring. So she turned to the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, which annually hires 950 Cambridge residents for summer job placements in both the private and public sectors.

She was nervous at first, but quickly got into the swing of working in the Mayor’s Office.

“I love this job,” Morton said. “I know it’s my first job, but it’s by far the best I’ve ever had.”

Founded in the late 1970s, the program was designed to give youth, specifically those ages 14-15, job placement in a supportive work environment, said George Hinds, the program’s director. Youth are placed in a variety of settings, including childcare, office work, video production, working with seniors, doing maintenance and landscaping, and working for non-profit organizations.

“The city feels, and research suggests, that residents who can learn skills at an early age are more likely to be productive later in life,” Hinds said. “There’s a lot of evidence that when kids work when they’re teens, they have a higher likelihood of completing college and making higher earnings as adults.”

Nationally, youth face a much steeper unemployment rate than adults. According to the most recent report by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16.3 percent of youth ages 16-24 were unemployed as of July 2013, compared with 7.3 adults (that number has since dropped to 6.2 percent as of July this year).

The 2008 recession didn’t help employment prospects for young people, either. The Brookings Institute found that long-term unemployment, meaning six months or more, for young workers had spiked to historic highs during the recession and stayed that way despite gains in other sectors of the labor force.

Delaying a resident’s first job experience can have lasting effects, Hinds said, which is why the city decided to double the number of young people participating in the program, from below 500 to its current size of 950, in the early 2000s.

“With the economy being so precarious in the past eight to 10 years, the city stepped up and started employing more kids since there were fewer opportunities in the private sector,” Hinds said.

The program prioritizes residents who have never had a job before, and then creates a lottery if there’s a surplus of older applicants. Although they did have a lottery this year, Hinds said they were still able to hire all of the people who applied on time, including those in their late teens who had been in the program before.

To ensure participation from employers, Hinds said the city doles out the salaries, or the current minimum wage of $8 per hour, so companies don’t have to worry about risking their own bottom lines on unseasoned hires. But, Hinds said the program has been working efficiently for decades, and as such, they’ve developed a strong track record that companies can rely on.

“We have a lot of data available to show that there’s a high level of satisfaction with the workers we have,” Hinds said. “So, there’s evidence on our side.”

In June this year, Gov. Deval Patrick signed a law to raise the minimum wage to $11 by 2017. Wages will increase to $9 in January next year and raise $1 for the next two years after that. At the same time, Cambridge councilors passed a policy order to explore the feasibility of raising the minimum wage in the city to $15 per hour. The order, approved in June this year, asks the city manager to draft a report on the impact of raising the city’s minimum wage and deliver it to the council’s Economic Development and University Relations subcommittee.

Hinds said he isn’t sure how that will affect the five-week program.

“We’ve obviously been looking at the budget, but we haven’t had any internal conversations about whether that will have any effect on the number of kids employed through the program,” Hinds said. “We’ll be having conversations about what the numbers will look like over the next couple years. The wages have been static for a couple years, so we knew to expect some changes.”

A Cambridge native, Hinds said he got his first job at the public library through the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment program, and kept it for the remaining four years of high school. Not a fan of the summer camp experience, Hinds said the program offered him something he could really latch onto: responsibility and a way to connect with people in the community that he wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“Working and feeling like I was productive felt good,” Hinds said. “I found a place where I fit in and connected with people in different ways, and that was really cool for me.”

Without the employment program, four-year participant Elijiah Scott said he would probably have spent his summers “doing nothing,” or “hanging out.” Instead, weekly workshops required as part of the program taught him how to write a resume and cover letter, how to prepare for the job search, network and secure references.

Scott held job positions with the Friends of the Alewife Reservation, working at a summer camp and interning in the Mayor’s Office. He idolized the counselors who mentored him during that time, he said, and now, one year out of college, he relished the opportunity to return the favor as a counselor himself.

“My favorite part of the job is when I come to my sites, and I get to see my kids – the youth employees – interacting with the kids in the programs, playing games with them or helping them draw or write their names,” Scott said of participants who work in childcare facilities.

“I think that’s really cool because I’m guiding these kids and in turn, they’re guiding these other kids. It’s like multiple generations,” Scott, 19, said. “So, it makes me feel twice as old.”

The program runs from July 7 to Aug. 15. For more information on applications for next year or participating employers, visit: cambridgema.gov/DHSP/programsforkidsandyouth/MSYEP.aspx.

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