Walsh gets early start on summer jobs program
Mayor Martin J. Walsh is already soliciting private employers to hire Boston teens next summer after falling short of a goal to put a record 12,000 young people to work this year.
Walsh, who took office in January, admittedly got a late start recruiting local businesses, but his efforts and ambitions for the city’s summer jobs program underscore the legacy left by the late Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who died Thursday, youth advocates said. Rarely do political leaders adopt signature policies of their predecessors.
“It’s remarkable this mayor has embraced a legacy from the previous mayor,” said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which recruits Boston high school students for jobs with private employers.
Menino was renowned for coaxing and cajoling executives at every opportunity to open their doors to the city’s teens, rarely speaking to business groups without making a pitch for the summer jobs program and a plea to hire the city’s youth.
Walsh launched his efforts last spring, convincing about 40 additional businesses and unions to participate. The program provided a total of 10,187 public and private summer jobs, according to the city.
“We did learn a lot this year,” Walsh said in an interview. “Now we have an opportunity to take this program and really grow it.”
The city’s summer jobs program is a national model that relies on city, state, and private funding of nearly $10 million a year to employ about 10,000 city teens each summer. It began on a small scale, though.
In the mid-1990s, a meeting between Menino and an executive at the Boston insurer John Hancock Financial Services resulted in a partnership between the company and the Boston Police Department. John Hancock funded a program called “Summer of Opportunity” that provided jobs for 40 city teens considered at risk of turning to crime.
Menino reached out to youths, whether at block parties or community events, giving them his business card when they asked for jobs and putting them in touch with people who would help. That’s how Shari Davis, a 26-year-old Boston University graduate and one of the youngest department heads in the Walsh administration, got her first job.
She worked as a karate instructor for $7 an hour at Boston community centers. Menino later chose her as an adviser to his youth council.
“He demanded that you champion whatever it was that was important to you,” said Davis, executive director of the Department of Youth Engagement and Employment. “He gave you the opportunity to take ownership.”
Menino did what few other mayors did, budgeting millions for summer jobs. He lobbied for state and federal funding, leaned on the private sector to take part, and fought to keep the jobs program going through good and bad times.
In 2000, when the state’s unemployment rate fell below 3 percent during the dot-com boom, Menino sharply criticized the Republican governor, the late A. Paul Cellucci, for cutting nearly $4 million from youth employment programs, on the premise that private-sector employers were hiring. He then lobbied President Bill Clinton and Senator Edward M. Kennedy for emergency funding, albeit unsuccessfully.
In 2003, when Massachusetts was mired in a deep recession following the dot-com bust, Menino had to slash city spending on youth programs as part of deep cuts that included layoffs of teachers and city employees. He pressured business leaders to ramp up participation in the jobs program.
Menino believed wholeheartedly that putting teens to work prevented crime. When researchers found no definitive link between summer jobs programs and lower crime, Menino, in a 2003 interview, dismissed the conclusions.
“What do criminologists know?” he said. “They read books. I study it every day by talking to people.”
Many people benefited from Menino’s unwavering support of youth. Nakieshia Fullington, a senior at the University of Massachusetts Boston, said her summer job as peer leader for a Dorchester youth group guided her decision to go into teaching, helping her realize that she wanted to spend her life working with teens.
“I realized my gift was teaching,” said Fullington, 21, who plans to become a high school history teacher. “If I didn’t go, I’d probably still be wondering what to do with my life. A lot of my friends are.”
The challenge for Walsh will be building on this legacy, said Lew Finfer, an organizer at the Youth Jobs Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for youth employment programs.
In Boston, hundreds of companies participate, but increasing that number is always difficult, said Finfer, whose group recruits private employers for summer jobs programs. What makes it a bit easier, Finfer said, is when business leaders know the issue is close to the mayor’s heart.
Walsh, who advocated for youth jobs spending as a state legislator, said he’ll continue to push more companies to provide summer employment, though he was not ready to announce a goal for 2015. He and his staff cold-called city businesses and held roundtable discussions with high tech and life sciences executives, urging them to participate.
Walsh said he’s considering a mentorship program and other ways to connect businesses with young people all year long. He noted that thousands of students from around the world pour into Boston’s universities each year, in pursuit of careers and better lives.
“I want to make sure the kids of Boston get the same opportunity,” he said.