Flipping burgers at a fast-food joint or cleaning up vacant lots for the City used to be a summertime rite of passage for youths in Chelsea.
It was part of being a kid and learning the ropes of adulthood; getting a paycheck and learning how the working world operates.
Now, getting that summer job in Chelsea is like winning the lottery.
Youth summer employment nationwide and in Massachusetts has hit record lows, and organizers in Chelsea indicate the local situation is in crisis mode – with hundreds of kids sitting idle this summer with nowhere to work and nothing to do.
Roseanne Bongiovanni, of the Chelsea Collaborative – which oversees Chelsea’s Summer Youth Employment Initiative, said that they have cut down their hiring significantly and reduced the hours worked. She said that they have cut their hiring nearly in half, going from nearly 300 kids working for 8 weeks to 175 kids working for six weeks.
“It definitely is a serious concern,” she said. “Due to the economic crisis, funds have been cut severely. Because of that we were only able to hire 175 kids for six weeks this year. We had more than 700 applications from young people looking for jobs. Our previous high was about 600 applications.”
Chelsea’s story is not much different than most every community in the nation.
In surrounding cities like Everett, the situation is the same. However, Everett tends to get large donations from industrial companies on its waterfront to bolster its summer jobs program. That usually ends up helping them avoid such crises.
In Revere, they were facing the same dramatic cuts as Chelsea, and the summer youth employment program there was about to be cut drastically for the first time in years. However, the City Council in Revere approved a $50,000 budget appropriation from the regular tax levy to save the program – the first time that City has ever had to do that.
Chelsea, on the other hand, seems to be caught in flux.
Unemployment for youths is at its highest point this summer since World War II according to estimates from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Nationwide, youth unemployment was at 25 percent for May – usually when the hiring of young people tends to pick up and that number decreases.
A closer look at the BLS numbers shows that with all teens factored in nationwide, only 25 percent will score summer work this year. That’s down from roughly about 50 percent in 2001.
BLS officials emphasized that teen unemployment – especially in the summer months – is at an all-time high since records started being kept in the 1940s.
Joe McLaughlin – a senior research associate at Northeastern University’s Center for Labor Market Studies – said that they have predicted that only one in four teens will find a job this summer.
“In the past few summers we’ve been forecasting pretty generously and the real number has ended up actually being lower than our forecast,” he told the Record. “We do feel the summer of 2011 will set another post-World War II low point for teen summer employment. We’ve forecast that 27 percent will find a job.”
McLaughlin said that the trend is particularly intense in low income or urban areas – such as Chelsea – and that it is much worse in Massachusetts than in other areas of New England.
Statistics from a report issued by McLaughlin’s Center last April shows that the actual teen employment number from 2010 had Massachusetts in dead last among all the New England states – and by a long shot.
Massachusetts ended up 2010 with 29 percent teen employment (meaning that nearly 70 percent were unemployed). The next closest state was Connecticut with 32 percent and Rhode Island with 34 percent. Vermont had the highest level of teen employment with 43 percent.
The Commonwealth’s low teen employment number is much more notable when it is revealed that in 1999, that same teen employment number was at 54 percent.
In Chelsea, Bongiovanni said the situation is the convergence of two perfect storms.
First, the private sector is no longer hiring young people in the numbers that they used to, and second, the only other option is working for government programs and those programs are being cut more and more each year.
“What we found is that many of the youths we turned away in the past, we would tell them to go and try applying at Market Basket or Stop & Shop or one of the fast food locations,” she said. “But over the past two years we haven’t been able to say that because we found their parents or other adult relatives are now being hired by Market Basket and other jobs like that. Because of the economic downturn, parents or older folks are taking jobs that used to go exclusively to youths for summer time employment. We find that if young people aren’t getting a job with the City or through us, then there just isn’t a job out there for them. Of course, that is very serious because that’s when they tend to engage in the risky behaviors we try to prevent.”
There are a lot of debates nationwide right now as to what is decimating employment for teens. The typical teen job in the private sector has been eroding for the past 10 years, according to the report by the Center for Labor Market Studies.
Some of the reasons batted around anecdotally by nationwide experts are that there is more competition for those same jobs (usually in landscaping or fast food/retail) by low-skilled adult workers – who are willing to work the same job for less money and for longer periods of time.
Another reason often cited is the advent of so many retirees working part-time jobs to supplement their retirement income. Jobs – such as bagging groceries at the market – are often taken nowadays by retirees who have job experience and are willing to work year-round.
Finally, there has been a contention that recent efforts towards raising the minimum wage have cut into the ability of employers to hire youths for summer jobs – as the financial commitment for a short-term worker is now too great.
McLaughlin said that the biggest reason the Center sees is a simple one: there are fewer jobs and more people seeking them.
“The main reason certainly is because of fewer jobs,” he said. “For the remaining jobs that are out there, there is tremendous competition. What we often see is that the slightly older kids – say 20 to 24 – are holding onto these entry-level jobs as they finish college or try to enter the workforce. They are often coming back to the jobs they had when they were 17…Teens cannot compete with them. The older kids are a little more reliable, more flexible, already trained and they work for the same amount of money.”
Like Chelsea organizers, the Center for Labor Market Studies is calling the phenomenon a potential crisis in the making.
“Those kids that don’t get a job tend to end up not doing much,” he said. “A lot of times that leads to risky behaviors – especially for the low-income groups and for boys…What’s unfortunate is kids are having too much free time and they’re not building important work skills that they’ll need when they leave school or college. Economists may say it’s not that important to have that first job flipping burgers, but we kind of think it is important. The only way to know how to work is to get out there and work.”
Bongiovanni agreed that there are a lot of kids in Chelsea this summer that aren’t doing much, and it could potentially lead to disaster.
“There are hundreds of kids out there this year that don’t have summer jobs and they want them,” she said. “We’re piecemealing pennies here to make this work. If folks want to contribute, it’s not too late. If a business, foundation or company wants to supply hiring a youth, they should contact us now.”
To reach Bongiovanni or the Collaborative, call (617) 889-6080 x111.