Intern program helps break `Catch 22' for teen job-seekers

Daniel Bernal's first job was to help paint a mural on the outside wall of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. It was a summer job, obtained with the aid of the city's Municipal Jobs Program. ``At first I didn't take it too seriously,'' admits the 14-year-old. But that first job yielded important lessons. Daniel worked on the mural with four other teens and professional artist, Janet Braun-Reinitz. ``The more I worked on it, the more I became involved,'' he says. He soon learned how to be critical of his own work. ``I came up with new standards for myself,'' he says. ``I'm very proud of that mural,'' which was dedicated to the city in the fall of 1986. Daniel's comments illustrate the goal of the city's program - to break through the paradox confronting young job-seekers. To get a job you need experience. To gain experience, you need a job. But a teen-ager, almost by definition, has neither a job nor experience, and wants both.

Ithaca's Municipal Jobs Program began in 1982 as a countywide effort to fill the void left by the demise of a federally funded jobs program set up through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. It lines up summer internships with city departments for people in their early teens. Last summer, supervised job sites were provided for over 100 youngsters who were paid minimum wage for working 90 hours each. This summer there should be room for around 90 teens, according to Robert Cutia, director of the city's Youth Bureau.

Nationwide, teen-agers looking for employment swelled the US labor force by some 3.5 million last summer. It's likely to be about the same this year, says John Stinson of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. About 85 percent of the youths seeking jobs will find them, he estimates.

Funding for Ithaca's Municipal Jobs Program is split between the city and surrounding Tompkins County. Every community in the county is given a share of county funds to help set up a similar program.

Before a teen-ager can be assigned a position, he or she must fill out an application - a valuable experience in itself. On the basis of the information provided, plus a personal interview with the staff of the city's Youth Employment Service and Youth Bureau, the young person is sent out for an interview at a job site. Once agreement between the employer and intern is reached, the intern signs a contract agreeing to perform the job to the best of his or her ability.

``What we attempt to do,'' says Rick Dietrich, who works for the Youth Bureau, ``is to take a holistic approach to employment. We want kids to get a number of things from the summer jobs we line up.'' Besides practical experience, young people gain important attitudes toward the working world, he says. Also important is the training given job-site supervisors. Much of the success of the program, particularly in situations involving groups of teens, depends on supervisors understanding just what can and cannot be expected of individuals on their first job. ``Personal relationships,'' says Mr. Dietrich, ``are the key to the success of the program.''

Sometimes youngsters find a strong link between what they're learning in school and the city job they get.

Ephraim Wallner spent his summer working as an assistant to a city official in the mayor's office. At the same time, he was taking a summer class at Ithaca College on ``Media in Politics.''

``In the class I learned a college semesters' worth of how the government is run and how the media affects this process,'' he says. ``And in my job I saw how this worked first-hand on a smaller scale.''

Don Nguyen had a very different kind of experience. He worked with a crew of 23 other teens building a foot bridge across a stream in a recreational area called Six Mile Creek. Heavy summer rains made it uncomfortable work. Still, he says he learned a ``lot of new stuff about how to use tools and how to build a bridge.'' He commented on the fact that he got to work with a lot of new kids. ``I feel good about it, and was happy that we got the bridge done on time.''

The bridge project, in fact, was one of the most ambitious undertakings by the program. And it presented problems - both technical, because of wet conditions, and emotional, because of the need to get everyone to work together harmoniously. But Dietrich notes that the adversity seemed to have a positive effect on the young workers. ``We had hired 24 kids, thinking that at least half of them would drop out,'' he says. None did.

For some, things taught at school took on new relevance. Dietrich was aware of some kids who had had difficulty with math, for instance. ``Yet on the job, math became real to them. Building a bridge depended upon certain real mathematical concepts.''

Pamela Cannon, a 16-year-old who worked on the bridge has gone to look at it several times over the past year. ``I just can't believe I put in all that work,'' she says. ``What a great project for 16- and 17-year-old kids. I think that if they had more work like that for us, it would be terrific.''

The city is working with the county's Chamber of Commerce to bring private employers into the summer jobs program, in the hopes that older teens will be able to build on the experience gained in the city's program and move into longer-term jobs. Ithaca's Youth Bureau also runs a year-round employment service for teens. About 250 to 300 youths are helped that way, say Mr. Cutia.

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