Thursday, November 10, 2011

Town Hall Meeting: “Not Hiring: The Plight of Jobless Teens.”

Thursday, November 10, 2011

In the middle of what some consider the harshest job environment for teenagers in the post-World War II period, a leading youth journalism program hosted a Nov. 2 town hall to engage elected officials, nonprofit groups, school leadership, and dozens of teens from across the city – in a spirited discussion to explore this complex issue.

Moderated by veteran journalist Laura Washington, the town hall navigated topics ranging from global shifts in where jobs are located to changes in government funding of workforce development, to the multiple ways that odds are stacked against teens and the on-the-ground reality of how they view the job hunt.

What stood out – besides the clear commitment of the adults in the room, was the resourcefulness and determination of the teen panelists.

As well as the difficulty of their plight.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the summer employment rate for teens age 16-19 was 30 percent in 2011. In 2000, the employment rate for that same age group nationally was 52 percent.

If anyone entered the discussion thinking that teen jobs are simply about having a little spending money, that idea was done away with in the Columbia Links video that opened the event. “I’m my own guardian – so I have to financially support myself,” a Chicago high school student told the assembly from the screen.

Panelists at the event included Jack Wuest, executive director for the Alternative Schools Network; Jhatayn Travis, executive director of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization; Anton Seals, senior associate for Congressman Bobby Rush; and Black Star Project founder and executive director Phillip Jackson.

Student panelists included Lincoln Park High School seniors Donnell McLachlan and Ashley Walker; Chevelle Blackburne, a senior at Kenwood Academy; and Natalia Yarbrough, a student at Richard J. Daley City College.

Also in the house were State Representatives Esther Golar and La Shawn K. Ford.

So how bad is the teen unemployment situation? Bad enough that some worry that a generation is losing the opportunity at that first job early in life.

The 17-24 year-old age group, Seals explained, is when you learn to be employed. “Not being employed can also become a habit after a while. This has been changing since 2007. Now we’re seeing so many teens unemployed, and even their parents can’t find jobs. For some it’s to provide for a family, for others to start a career.”

“Youth have been really hammered in the summer,’ said Wuest of the Alternative Schools Network. “The economy’s broken, and it’s also not employing millions of adults. Incomes have stayed the same or gone down. Corporations have found they can make money, and are sitting on trillions of dollars. But youth are hammered worse than other groups.”

“In the 60s and 70s, you could drop out of school and still get a job in a factory,’ he said. “But those jobs have been replaced by low-paying service jobs.”

What’s happened to support to teen employment initiatives, Washington asked KOCO executive director Travis. “There’s been substantial disinvestment in funding for youth employment initiatives over the past two decades,” she responded.

“Working has a profound impact on the quality of life for young people, but also for the overall quality of life of their communities,” she said. “Each year when it gets warmer and violence escalates again, there’s suddenly a movement to support youth employment. Let’s start earlier.”

Washington asked Jackson of The Black Star Project about the other issues at play influencing high teen unemployment. He takes a decidedly global perspective on it. “I’m out in the ‘hood, but also across the globe,’ he said. “When we were young, the US was a certain country. We’d beat down other countries to have an artificially high standard of living,’ he explained. “But that’s done. We absolutely cannot compete with the rest of the world that way. We must start in our community, in schools, and look into the economic stream, then things will work out.”

“There are 75 million young globally people without jobs,’ Jackson said. “That means that each of you is competing with 75 million other young people. If you expect someone to give you a job, it’s not going to happen. We need to be more holistic. Government is important, but this must be community driven.”

The students on the panel were impressive for their analysis, poise and resourcefulness. Several said that they feel it’s important to not get caught up in the short-term benefits of a low-wage job but to stay focused on long-term goals instead.

Donnell McLachlan of Lincoln Park HS said that he’s not looking for work right now, because he wants to focus more on his education. “I’m looking for internships in journalism. This is helping to set me up for a major.”

Teens seeking work compete not only with one another, but with many over-qualified adults looking for work. Other factors are stacked against them too. For example, Chicago’s new, stricter curfew law means that those under 17 cannot be outside or in a public place after 10 p.m. week nights and after 11 p.m. weekends. This restricts many job options. Another issue hurting teen employment is the city’s violence. Returning home late at night can be prohibitively dangerous.

Washington asked: Are teens a second priority for policymakers? Certainly, several panelists answered. Wuest explained that over the past decade, when the Workforce Investment Act (WIA) came into effect, the number of federally funded summer jobs for teenagers has declined significantly. We talk about the surge in Iraq, he said, but “If we did the same here, we could put 1 million of our most disadvantaged youth to work. If we can do it in Iraq, why not here in our own country?”

Black Star and several other groups are training young people in entrepreneurship. “This is what should be taught in high school, in elementary school,’ Jackson said. “Not to grow up and get a job, but grow up and find a way to sustain a family and contribute to society.” Big business employs fewer people than small business, he said.

A TrueStar youth from the audience said his mother had taught him you’re never too young to work. At the same time, it’s about building your resume, not always taking that $8.50 an hour job. “It’s about making a difference, not money,” he said. “Once you have that concept in your head, better things happen.”

“It’s unfortunate for the young born in a time like this,’ said Jackson of The Black Star Project. But his message was one of hope. “Young people must push their legislators. You’ll have to occupy LaSalle Street and you’ll have to take inspiration from this hardship and go out and make it. It’s our job, too, we cannot leave you out here by yourselves.”

Brenda Butler, executive director of Columbia Links, closed by holding up the most recent issue of the youth-produced magazine R-Wurd, at 52 pages, the largest edition yet. “Hope we all leave with food for thought and plans for action. Take home a leaflet. Take steps – write letters, make sure that lawmakers hear your voices.”

To learn more about the Columbia Links journalism program, visit

McCormick Journalism Program grantees:
Columbia Links
Free Spirit Media

--by Mark Hallett, senior program officer 

1 Responses to “Town Hall Meeting: “Not Hiring: The Plight of Jobless Teens.””

Anonymous said...
3:02 PM, December 16, 2011

Such a wonderful event...
It was great to hear teens like McLachlan and Walker speak about how much they value their education. You don't hear that too often these days.

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