Despite stimulus, teens find little aid in competition for jobs

| Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009

Chelsea Lipscomb couldn't find a summer job this year, despite filling out applications at several Ross Park Mall stores, local restaurants and supermarkets.

None of the businesses called her. "A lot of places weren't interested in hiring college students because we would be leaving for school," said Lipscomb, 18, a sophomore chemical engineering major at Penn State's Greater Allegheny Campus in McKeesport.

Thousands of other local teenagers faced the same predicament. Teen unemployment has been on the rise, and just-released September's numbers put it at an all-time high, 25.8 percent, nationwide, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said. The overall jobless rate was 9.8 percent.

And, while more than $1.2 billion in federal stimulus money was supposed to help teens find summer jobs, it barely made a dent in one of bleakest job markets in more than 60 years.

"The economic recession has impacted job-seekers of every age, but it is having a disproportionate effect on young people, particularly teens," said Dara Ware Allen, executive director of YouthWorks Inc. The Downtown organization provides training and employment opportunities for low-income teens.

"As employment becomes scarce, there is more competition for entry-level positions than there would have been" in past years, Allen said.

Karen Dreyer, director of youth development for The Pittsburgh Project, agreed. "As more folks with more experience are unemployed, we had students this summer who were 18 or 19 and couldn't find jobs, even though they applied to a number of places," she said.

Lipscomb, who worked in the past for the North Side-based Community Development Corporation, was one of them.

"It affected me greatly. I wasn't able to get the clothes or things for my dorm room that I needed," the North Side resident said. She even had to delay buying some books she needed for this semester.

September's teen jobless number is one-third higher than a year ago, and translates to 1.55 million young people nationwide who looked for work but had no luck.

Figures by state are reported only on an annual basis, but Pennsylvania's unemployment rate for teens has been trending upward and was 20.4 percent, or about 69,000 workers, last year.

In a weak economy, older jobless workers looking to earn extra cash or supplement unemployment pay are beating high school- and college-age applicants to many jobs in stores and fast-food kitchens. Some say the strain of the rising minimum wage — now $7.25 — is taking a toll.

"The unintended consequence of the federal minimum wage hike is clearly pricing some employees out of the work force," said Kristen Lopez Eastlick of the Employment Policies Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Washington, adding that minority teens are hit hardest. Last month's numbers show 40.7 percent of black teen job-seekers were unemployed.

Allegheny County and Pittsburgh hired several hundred young workers over the summer using stimulus money provided through the Workforce Investment Act summer program.

Advocates described it as a way to keep teens off the streets while reinvigorating the nation's summer youth employment program, which had gone dormant for a decade.

Allegheny County typically runs a program for 100 to 150 young workers, but this year, it spent almost $1.88 million in federal dollars to provide training and jobs for 585 workers, said Jonathan Walkush of the Department of Human Services. Eleven schools and organizations, including YouthWorks, were under contract to provide services.

Some experts and government watchdogs say the nationwide program did little to help teens seeking employment, as almost one fourth of the 279,169 young workers involved have not gotten jobs.

The federal Labor Department said even if not all participants got jobs, the one-time program has helped young people ages 14 to 24 to build valuable professional skills.

YouthWorks and Urban Youth Action ran training and internships with various employers for more than 200 young people, some of whom kept their positions past the program's end in August.

Michael Praskovich, 17, said YouthWorks arranged for him to work at Leadership Pittsburgh's office Downtown from July through mid-August. "I feel like this program helped open up avenues for me," the senior at Our Lady of Sacred Heart High School in Coraopolis said.

Previous efforts to find a part-time job failed, Praskovich said. But after his summer work, he was hired as a box office cashier by the new Cinemark theater at the Settlers Ridge retail complex in Robinson.

Allen said most participants in the summer program were working for the first time, and many wanted to help with household expenses because their parents were unemployed or working for minimum wage.

Now that the program is over, "How their families survive throughout the year, it's going to be a challenge," she said.

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