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Obama plan to boost teen employment could be an uphill battle

The national unemployment rate has fallen to 8.6 percent, but the level of teen joblessness has remained high. So, on Thursday, President Obama encouraged the private sector to step up their hiring of young people.

By Ron SchererStaff writer / January 5, 2012

A woman reacts as U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands after speaking about jobs and the economy at Shaker Heights High School during a trip to Cleveland, Ohio Thursday.

Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

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Uncle Sam used to reach into his deep pockets to pay for programs to keep teens off the streets in the summer and instead get some work experience.

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But, with federal budget cutting the norm, those days are over.

So, on Thursday, the White House kicked off its efforts to encourage the private sector to step up their hiring of young people.

Called the “Summer Jobs +” initiative, the White House urged corporations, nonprofits, and government to hire at least 250,000 teens this summer. So far the Obama administration says it has received commitments from such companies as AT&T, Bank of America, and CVS/Caremark to hire 180,000 youthful workers this summer. Included in that effort is hiring promised by such federal agencies at the Department of Agriculture, Department of Interior, and Department of Health and Human Services.

Even with those commitments, people involved in youth employment say jobs are likely to be tough to get this summer. States and cities continue to face budget challenges. Although companies are hiring, they are still skittish about the direction of the economy. And there is only so much federal agencies can do with Congress talking about the need for austerity.

“This summer is going to be a real challenge for young people who want a decent job or any job,” says Aaron Smith, executive director of Young Invincibles, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tries to represent the views of people 18 to 34 years of age. “I am glad we have some employers stepping up, but we will have millions of teens applying for these jobs and not enough positions.”

Even as the national unemployment rate has fallen to 8.6 percent, the level of teen joblessness has remained high. In November, teenage unemployment was 21.4 percent compared to 20.8 percent November, 2010. In August of 2009, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for teens peaked at 24.9 percent.

Pent-up demand last summer was 3 million teens, estimates Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. And counting people in their early twenties, he says, increases the shortage to 5.5 million jobs.

“Every little bit helps but the magnitude of the problem is far greater,” says Mr. Sum who thinks getting private employers involved is a good idea since kids tend to get more training than if they work in the public sector. “Quite frankly, the private sector is more demanding.”

Sum also says if a teen can get a foot in the door in the private sector, they have a greater likelihood of being kept on in the fall and winter.

For teens, finding work in the summer has never been easy. They lack experience and may not have much of a work history. In recent years, the task has gotten even harder as people over 55 years of age have returned to the workforce, taking many of the service sector jobs that used to go to teenagers.

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