Agency lends a hand to job-hunting teens

Francine Parker dropped out of school because she ''didn't like the work'' and wanted to get a job instead. But jobs for high school dropouts, she found, are hard to come by. After three months of reading want ads and pounding the pavement, Francine became discouraged and frustrated, sometimes giving up her search for weeks at a time.

Riding the bus home one day after a job interview, Francine saw an advertisement for Jobs for Youth -- a nonprofit job-placement service for young dropouts. She contacted JFY counselors and, a week later, was hired as an office clerk with a wallpaper distributing firm near her Boston home.

Early findings in a report released by the US Department of Labor herald Jobs for Youth as ''a low-cost and beneficial way to increase the earnings and employment of disadvantaged, out-of-school youth.'' Although stressing that its preliminary findings may change -- or even reverse -- when the study is complete , the report says JFY participants are more likely than other government-subsidized workers to hold full-time jobs, at costs substantially less than most government programs.

Now 17-year-old Francine, promoted after three months on the job, helps her mother with the rent, earns her own spending money, and voluntarily attends a night class at Jobs for Youth's education center studying for her high school diploma.

''There are different ways to get a good education,'' she says of her decision to quit school. But without JFY, finding a job herself would have been very hard, she says. ''You either lie about your credentials, which I don't think is a good idea, or work in a hamburger joint. But if you want a good office job, it's hard.''

Francine is one of about 500 Boston youths between 16 and 21 placed in private-sector jobs by Jobs for Youth last year. JFY programs in New York and Chicago served comparable numbers of dropouts - most of whom read at a fifth-grade level and cannot fill out job applications. Some have been in trouble with the law. Seventy percent are minorities, many from the cities' poorest neighborhoods.

Despite its apparent success, JFY may face funding cutbacks from the federal government. Close to half JFY's revenue is raised from businesses and private donations, but some of its funds come from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, which the Reagan administration reportedly wants to replace. The administration plan is expected to limit spending for federal job-training programs to $2.4 billion -- $1 billion less than in 1982.

''It's the most uncertain situation we've had in years,'' says Lucy Watkins, executive director of the Boston chapter, who estimates the federal cuts may sever a third of JFY's budget.

The government's timing seems ironic, Mrs. Watkins says, given the accelerated need for these services during a period of rising unemployment and economic recession. Last year, wages earned by JFY's Boston clients totaled $936 ,000 -- double what it costs to run the agency. ''When these kids are working, that means they're not in jail, they're not on unemployment, and they are paying taxes. They are making a contribution to society,'' she says.

Mrs. Watkins points out that the youths ''are well acquainted with failure'' before they come to JFY. She says their skills and job experience are limited, and some have been paid less than legal wages for their services.

''Our claim is not to get a young person a job -- as a dishwasher or packer -- that he will have for the rest of his life, but to give him or her, a first sense of success,'' she says. ''They learn to say: 'I can do it. I can get out there and be independent and bring home that paycheck.' ''

JFY acts as a go-between for unemployed school dropouts and private employers who want to fill entry-level openings. The youths are placed in unsubsidized jobs in restaurants, retail sales such as stationery stores or florist shops, hospital maintenance departments, industrial packing and shipping docks, and garage or auto repair shops.

With a youth unemployment rate of 21.7 percent (compared with 8.9 percent for all workers), teen-agers face an increasingly bleak job picture. The outlook is even more dreary for minority youth concentrated in cities of the Northeast -- of every 100 young blacks looking for work in New York City, more than 40 will be unsuccessful, according to a Bureau of Labor Statitistics spokesman.

JFY, operating under the the credo ''youth learn to work by working,'' puts job placement ahead of job training. The average JFY participant receives about 17 hours of educational training or counseling -- less than most other youth employment programs. However, most dropouts -- already disillusioned with the classroom -- would shy away from the program if it were tied to books and exams, Mrs. Watkins says.

JFY's education service is strictly voluntary, although professional career counselors do some ''gentle arm-twisting'' to persuade youths to use the center, Mrs. Watkins says. Many clients -- considered ''unemployable'' by labor statisticians -- learn to read well enough to get a driver's license, follow directions on a map, and fill customer orders. Improved math skills help them balance a checkbook, calculate overtime, or operate a cash register. Those who, like Francine Parker, want high school diplomas can get help studying for their equivalency exams.

Without the help of JFY, Francine says, ''I'd probably be sitting at home . . . instead of out working.''

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