Helping teens find a toehold in the job market
Every year about this time politicians, and journalists too, rather belatedly bring up the subject of summer jobs for the young. A mayor here and there will announce a program with a catchy title, somewhat as he might announce a program for beautifying the city parks. A businessman or two will declare a policy of recruiting teen-agers for their work force. But public attention to unemployment for the young remains seasonal and sporadic, considering the near-unanimity of opinion among social scientists that a job can be an important preventive of juvenile crime, drug abuse, and pregnancy. A touch of historical perspective may be in order.Skip to next paragraph
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In 1935, when my father was working his way through the University of Wisconsin, he needed more money than he was able to earn as a part-time waiter in the student union. But the country was still recovering from the depression, and jobs were hard to find.
That year, as part of the New Deal, the National Youth Administration (NYA) was created to provide employment for young men and women between the ages of 16 and 25. By offering work, the reasoning went, the agency would help students stay in school and other young people stay off what was then called relief.
For my father, as for thousands of other students, NYA jobs made the difference between continuing his education and dropping out. He graded papers, helped a professor with a research project, and took inventory in an engineering laboratory. He never thought of these as ``make work'' tasks, and the money he earned, along with the 35 cents an hour he was paid as a waiter, enabled him to graduate with a degree in electrical engineering.
The NYA, always controversial, was terminated in 1943. But during its eight-year existence it gave part-time employment -- not to mention hope and opportunity for the future -- to more than 600,000 college students, 1.5 million high school pupils, and 2.5 million young people who were no longer in school. Thousands were black students helped by the agency's Office of Minority Affairs. Not a bad record for an agency criticized by some as a ``coddling institution.''
Today, half a century after its creation, one does not have to be a New Dealer to believe that the NYA merits consideration as an example of what a nation can do -- systematically, all year round -- to give young people a toehold in the job market. Other programs have followed, of course -- notably the 20-year-old Job Corps and the three-year-old Federal Job Training Partnership Act. But youth unemployment remains a more serious problem than ever, with rates averaging 18 percent nationwide and exceeding 40 percent for minority youth.
President Reagan's call for a subminimum wage for young people -- the Youth Employment Opportunity Wage Act -- reflects his administration's concern about teen unemployment. The program would pay teen-agers a subminimum wage of $2.50 an hour for summer work, rather than the $3.35 federal minimum wage, in an effort to create more job openings. Civil rights and labor groups have opposed the legislation, and many observers, including some employers, contend that wages aren't the problem. They also worry that an age-specific wage, in addition to sending messages that a teen-ager's work is worth less than an adult's, might displace adult workers in favor of lower-paid teens.