How did Tom Menino learn the meaning of hard work?
Maybe, just maybe, it was forged during the summer he spent at Bird & Sons crawling through a 2-by-2-foot opening to clean steam-generating furnaces at the Norwood roofing plant. It was a tough job for a stocky 15-year-old kid from Hyde Park.
“I would get so dirty at night that my mom wouldn’t let me into the house until I took off my clothes,” recalled Menino.
That summer’s experience taught him a few lifelong lessons, too. “You had to work hard to make any money,” he said. “You have to get yourself dirty.”
Bostonians will remember Mayor Menino as the tireless urban mechanic. Mr. Pothole Filler, Mr. Clean Street, Mr. Ribbon Cutter. But to me, he will be Mr. Summer Jobs.
Most major American cities abandoned their summer jobs programs after the federal funds that fueled them dried up more than a decade ago. But that didn’t happen here, not in Boston, not under Menino.
From the very beginning, he has been a champion of giving teens an opportunity to work, and every year he makes sure the city sets aside several million dollars for summer jobs. It is a nonnegotiable item — sacrosanct, if you will — in the city’s $2.6 billion annual budget. During the leaner years, there were calls to trim the funding. Critics said the program was a luxury the city couldn’t afford in a bad economy. Menino would have none of it.
‘It’s not about today, it’s about tomorrow.’ —Mayor Tom Menino, commenting on the need for a teen summer jobs program
“It’s a nonstarter,” he would say. “It’s not about today, it’s about tomorrow.”
City funds are only one part of the formula used to finance about 10,000 teen jobs every summer. Menino scrounges around for what few state and federal dollars are available; some years he can grab millions, in others, it’s zero. The government money helps place teens in positions at a range of nonprofits throughout the city, from senior centers to Boys & Girls Clubs. They are good, meaningful jobs, not make-work, with starting pay of $8 an hour.
Then there’s Menino’s pitch to private-sector companies. It used to be a rite of spring, as sure as Opening Day at Fenway Park; now it has become a New Year’s resolution. Starting in January, meetings between the mayor and corporate titans do not end without him asking them for summer-jobs money. And they have responded. The hospitals, the banks, the insurers, the tech firms.
When Menino started, there were 100 private employers in the Mayor’s Summer Jobs program. Companies have come and gone, but the overall number keeps rising — today, more than 300 participate. They include marquee names like Brigham & Women’s, John Hancock, and State Street.
Add it all up, and after 20 years of grinding out, Menino has cobbled together about $150 million in government funding and created more than 200,000 summer jobs.
Now that’s an economic stimulus plan.
But a summer job is more than just putting cash into the pockets of kids from families who really need it. It’s a social investment that keeps teenagers off the streets and out of trouble when the school year ends. Work shows them how to communicate, be part of a team, act responsibly.
How important is all of this? More than ever, if you listen to Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. Over the summer, the teen employment rate nationwide was 32 percent, the third worst showing ever. The inequities among races were even more striking: 39 percent of white teens held jobs compared with 19 percent of black teens.
For idle youths, Sum says, “This is the equivalent of a Great, Great Depression.”
Icandace Woods was one of the lucky ones who got a summer internship through the city a decade ago at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. She never really left. After graduating from Fenway High School, she continued part time while attending Lesley University in Cambridge. After she finished school, Dana-Farber offered her a full-time job. Today, at 27, she is a clinical team leader helping cancer patients navigate the medical system.
“These jobs are amazing,” said Woods. “It shows us hope and shows that someone cares. A lot of times, we’re lost in the cracks. If given the opportunity, we can run with it.”
And run they have. Job well done, Mayor Menino.Shirley Leung can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.