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Still tough for Mass. teens to find summer jobs

Even with state and local aid, recession means teens are finding work hard to come by

Tayshia Holmes-Maxwell worked at the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program office in Cambridge on Monday.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Tayshia Holmes-Maxwell worked at the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program office in Cambridge on Monday.

Tayshia Holmes-Maxwell, 16, works 20 hours a week for minimum wage, doing clerical work in a Cambridge city office. Her weekly pay is just $160, but Holmes-Maxwell, who will be a junior at Cambridge Rindge and Latin School in the fall, is among the lucky ones who have managed to find work in a summer job market that remains exceedingly tough for teens.

After a burst of hiring in May, teenage employment has stalled this summer, despite earlier hopes that an improving economy would mean more opportunities for teens to gain work experience and earn money to help families, save for college, or both. Nationally, fewer teens were working in July than a year ago, and the teen unemployment rate, 23.7 percent, was essentially unchanged from a year ago. The overall US unemployment rate was 7.4 percent last month.

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In Massachusetts, the situation may be slightly better, according to local workforce specialists, because of substantial funding of teen job programs. The Legislature, for example, approved $10 million, an increase from $8 million in 2012, to fund both summer and year-round jobs, supporting programs that hire teens to work in city halls, local parks, and other public services.

Through a combination of state, local, and private funding, more than 15,000 Massachusetts teens have jobs this summer.

Many of the jobs for teens that exist in Massachusetts are supported with public funds, which is rare among states, said Susan Lange, vice president of the Commonwealth Corporation, the state’s quasi-public workforce development agency, which administers the state funds for teen employment programs.

“We’re in a terrific spot in Massachusetts for subsidized employment,” she said. “While that’s terrific and unique to Massachusetts, it’s never quite enough. There are always more people who want to work than there are funds.”

In Cambridge, for example, approximately 900 jobs are funded through the city, by the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program, and 50 through the state’s YouthWorks initiative. The total budget is $1 million. But there aren’t many opportunities for teens beyond these subsidized programs, said George Hinds, program coordinator for the Mayor’s Summer Youth Employment Program.

“We haven’t seen a rebound yet on private sector jobs,” he said. “It might even still be declining.”

Beyond boosting a teen’s self-esteem, jobs for young people give them skills that prepare them for the workplace and full-time employment. A study released in July by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found that having summer jobs made it less likely that low-income teens in Boston would engage in violence.

But teen employment in Massachusetts has declined dramatically over the past decade or so. In 2000, about half of all Massachusetts teens had jobs; by 2012, that plunged to about one-quarter.

The recent recession and sluggish recovery are largely responsible for the difficulties teens have in finding jobs. With unemployment at 7 percent in Massachusetts, recent college graduates and other adults are taking retail and fast-food jobs, which historically went to teens, said Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies.

“Teens are working at the lowest rate than they have in our history,” said Sum. “Employers have choices. Kids go to the back of the queue.”

That’s why state and local governments are stepping in, labor officials said. In Boston, more than 10,000 teens, up slightly from the year before, are working as camp counselors, parks employees, and office assistants, said Conny Doty, the director of the Mayor’s Office of Jobs and Community Services.

Doty estimated that 7,000 were funded by $4.3 million from the city, state, or philanthropic efforts, and about 3,000 teens got paychecks from their private sector employers, local businesses and corporations working with the city to hire teens.

State and local officials say they are also developing programs to make teens better prepared to work, coaching them on so-called soft skills, such as punctuality, proper dress, and proper workforce behavior.

In Cambridge, the city has partnered with Cambridge Savings Bank to teach these skills, as well as financial literacy, including budgeting, saving, and credit.

“If we wait to train people on how to be good employees until they’re 18, 19, we’re going to run into some problems long-term in the workplace,” Hinds said. In the Cambridge program, he noted, “We’re able to work out those kinks at the age when they’re able to afford to make mistakes.”

Gail Waterhouse can be reached at gail.waterhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @gailwaterhouse.
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