My first job was making cheesesteaks and hoagies at Grillworks, a fast food restaurant in a downtown tourist area of Philadelphia. I remember vividly the excitement of going with my best friend to get the working papers that allowed me to work part-time at age 15 during the school year and in the summer.
At Grillworks, I learned to multitask, communicate with many diverse people, manage my emotions when dealing with my fellow co-workers and supervisors, and yes, make BOMB sandwiches. I spent my first night cleaning the grill and the restaurant from top to bottom. Beyond food preparation and cooking, cleaning and washing dishes were my key responsibilities.
After a few short months, I was promoted to cashier and taking orders. This was intense! On Saturdays the lines would be long, customers demanding, and I had to compute change in my head. There were no “smart” registers back then.
The summer of my 16th year, I was fortunate to work at the University of Pennsylvania through a partnership with the School District of Philadelphia. It was an office job, where I also worked in the lab helping researchers studying addiction issues. My mom took me shopping for work-appropriate clothing — a green and red suit. That summer, I gained tremendous confidence. I was responsible for answering phones, filing important papers, keeping records and even using a computer.
While I had access to computers at school, I didn’t have one at home. I felt so empowered to have a badge and walk into buildings that seemed so far removed from me, even though I lived just 20 blocks away.
This was 1992. I grew up in a multigenerational household, with my mother, grandmother and brother. And while I never wanted for anything, had a stable roof over my head, food and a loving home, my mother was often stressed about finances, making just $19,000 a year with two jobs. My part-time and summer job helped give her peace of mind and enabled me to enjoy the experiences that middle- and upper-income teens have — going to the movies with friends, buying a cute outfit and opening a bank account — along with gaining an understanding of the world of work.
Needed lifelong skills
But today, too few teens are working and have access to early work experience. It’s now 2019 and just like me, millions of young people across the United States look forward to getting a summer job so they can learn new skills and earn a paycheck.
But according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the teen (ages 16-19) employment population ratio in July 2018, a peak summer month for working, was only 37.2%, down from 53.5% in 2000. Black youth had the lowest rates of employment last July at 28.2%, with Hispanic/Latino and white youth at 30.5% and 40.2% respectively. For low-income youth, a summer job is especially important because they use earnings to purchase school supplies, help their families buy food, pay for incidentals during the school year or contribute to college costs.
The benefits of summer jobs extend beyond adolescence — summer jobs boost lifelong skills. The skills that I learned in my first two jobs still stay with me today and are what employers here in the United States and across the world say they need and value. Businesses and local economies need a workforce equipped with more education, training, and experience than ever before.
In an analysis of more than 380 studies from around the world, Child Trends and FHI 360 identified the skills most frequently sought by employers: communication skills, social skills, higher-order thinking, self-control and positive self-concept. Teens can learn all these skills through their first jobs.
Current funding levels remain insufficient to meet the demand for those who want jobs in the summer and year-round. Community leaders, and especially mayors, are often the biggest champions for summer jobs. They recognize the critical role jobs play in engaging young people, whether in community service and progressive work experiences or in the public and private sectors.
Research proves that summer work experiences keep teens safe, are linked to reduced incarceration and improved academic outcomes. Summer youth employment programs frequently represent the single largest investment of local youth workforce development dollars. However, in a survey of JP Morgan Chase-funded grantees, these programs reported only being able to place 38% of applicants into summer jobs.
We need a national summer youth employment program again. Summer youth employment leaders and those who support these programs struggle with sustainability and equity. They also have difficulties reaching young people — such as Opportunity Youth and those affected by the justice system — and connecting summer experiences and programs to the education and workforce systems and policies.
Back in the 1970s and ’80s, we had a federally funded summer jobs program that targeted high-poverty communities across the country. However, that stand-alone program was cut in the 1990s. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 has restored some support by requiring that 20% of youth formula funds be spent on paid and unpaid work experiences, including summer jobs that incorporate academic and occupational education.
While this represents a leveraging opportunity for local communities and states, a carve-out of existing funding is not sufficient to meet the demand from young people, community leaders, elected officials and business. Too many low-income teens are being turned away and far too many don’t get their first jobs until their early- to mid-20s, putting them at a disadvantage against their more connected peers. We need a federally funded summer jobs program again.
To learn more about summer youth employment check out this recent webinar co-hosted by the Center for Law and Social Policy and JPMorgan Chase & Co. featuring programs in Louisville, Ky. and Los Angeles.
Kisha Bird is director of youth policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy and project director for the Campaign for Youth, a national coalition chaired by CLASP. Focusing on local and federal policy solutions, she works to expand access to education, employment and support services for low-income and opportunity youth, with a focus on young men and women of color.
This column has been updated.