Jobs for youth: cooling a long hot summer?

School is out, summer is in -- and Boston is worried. The concern: summer jobs for youth -- or, this year, the comparative absence of them. Last year, for a pool of eligible disadvantaged youths which Paul Grogan of the city's Employment and Economic Policy Administration numbers at 21 ,000, the city had 8,200 jobs on offer. This year, what with cutbacks from Washington, squeezes from Proposition 2 1/2, and the city's own home-grown, fiscal tangle, that number has shrunk to 4,126.

That shrinkage produces varied responses. Those interested in teen-agers worry that many will miss a possible leg up toward a permanent job after graduation. Those concerned that business is being corseted by a shortage of qualified graduates worry that yet another summer's worth of training is being sacrificed.

But those anxious about public safety worry most. They fear that, with idleness increasing and police and fire protection (due to the mayor's 44 percent budget cut) on the wane, the sun-bakedl streets may become what one official calls "a tinderbox."

And from all quarters comes the feeling that somewhere we have missed the train -- that, as a nation, we have spent some $150 billion on youth training programs since 1965 ($6 billion in fiscal 1981 alone) and have yet to find the answer.

If answers are rare, statistics abound. They vary widely from source to source. But they help define the problem in its national context. In a country whose unemployment rate hovers around 7 percent, youth unemployment stands near 19 percent. Among black and Hispanic teen-agers, however, it reaches some 36 percent -- a significant detail in Boston, where the latest census found that 30 percent of the residents were of minority races. Nor is the problem declining. James Howell, chief economist at the First National Bank, says the rate of youth unemployment has increased 100 percent since 1947, when the statistics were first collected.

Dr. Howell made that point in introducing a recent seminar on youth unemployment sponsored by the bank, the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald American , and The Christian Science Monitor. The participants, agreeing that youth unemployment is growing, charged it up to various causes:

* Statistical variations. The figures depend on whether your definition of "youth" sets the margins at ages 16 and 19 or at 14 and 24. It also depends on whether you totally up students, housewives, and part-time workers.

* Changes in type of job. Young people, looking for satisfactory work, often spend time on unemployment as they move between jobs. Nor are there many opportunities for basic manual labor: Movie-theater ushers, shoe-shiners, sweepers, and hosts of otherl entry-level jobs are all disappearing.

* Changes in census proportions. Over the last two decades, the adult population has increased by 25 percent -- while the youth population has grow by 69 percent, with, nonwhite youth increasing by 119 percent.

* Changes in military structure. In 1955 the armed forces employed 15 percent of the nation's youth. They currently employ only about 7 percent.

* Changes in the nature of the work force. In 1947, the work force was largely American men. Today, the rolls include large numbers of women and many illegal immigrants.

Such arguments can be used, of course, to suggest that what looks like heavy unemployment is partly a numerical chimera -- and that the case is being overstated. That was Dr. Roger Porter's line of reasoning. A special assistant to President Reagan dealing with unemployment, he told the seminar that the solution lies in nationwide economic recovery. The administration's program, he said, should bring on stream 13 million new jobs in the next five years. And youth unemployment, particularly sensitive to economic variations, should be greatly affected by such recovery.

In the long term, he is no doubt right. The solution to the nation's economic problems must come from the only thing that can generate economic wealth: the private sector. But a survey of area employers done by the Smaller Business Associationl of New England has produced two interesting responses. Set side by side, they suggest than an economic boom may not be the panacea. First, nearly half of those polled agreed that "labor markets are very tight, and it is becoming more and more difficult to hire professional and technical workers in our plant." On the other hand, however, nearly 70 percent agreed that "recent high school graduates are ill-equipped professionally and attitudinally to successfully make the transition into the job market" -- to which nearly 20 percent appended the stark rider, "We do not hire them in our plant."

The conclusion is apparent: The local economy is plenteous, but good laborers are few.

So how does one get from here to there -- from a dismal brooding over the long, hot summer to a readiness to train the nation's youth so that businesses will once again find them attractive?

Despite the cuts, Boston still has programs in operation. One, operated by Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD), disperses 2,700 young people to 566 nonprofit and public agencies needing summer helpers throughout the city. Even these minimum-wage, less-than-full-time jobs for the disadvantaged are, program director Nick Avitabile says, better than being "subjected to the menial fast-foods jobs" which are sometimes the only alternatives.

The program, drawing funds from the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), has been accused of being a mere make-work operation, providing no real training. But it has its success stories -- like Charlie Titus, now athletic director at the Boston campus of the University of Massachusetts. Mr. Titus, a former administrator of ABCD, first got involved with that organization when he spent a summer in its program working on a playground on the RoxburyDorchester border. He look back on it fondly for the maturity and sense of responsibility it engendered. Are such jobs more valuable than the typical friend-of-a-friend jobs found through family connections? Yes, Mr. Titus says. "If I mess up," he chuckles, "I've got to deal with some supervisor who doesn't love me like my mother does."

And, in addition to the whole web of other publicly funded job programs, there are a couple of newer bright spots in Boston:

* The Boston Committee, a high-powered group of movers and shakers dedicated to reducing racial and ethnic tensions, has stepped into a breach left gaping by the city's financial crisis. Not only have they found private funds to keep the city's free swimming pools going and to keep alive the Boston Neighborhood Basketball League (both of which keep a lot of children off the streets), but they are also experimenting with a program to subsidize neighborhood businesses which hire youngsters for summer jobs.

* The Private Industry Council has 600 unsubsidized jobs on offer, contributed by local businesses. Recruiting 35 students in each high school, they ask only that the students have good attendance records, have a reasonable academic average, are punctual, and are not now working. The program is still in its infancy, having quadrupled since last summer when it offered 129 jobs.

But perhaps the most thought-provoking option is the Jobs for America's Graduates program, developed in Delaware under the enthusiastic support of Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV and now operating test sites in Massachusetts (since January), Missouri, Arizona, and Tennessee. The program, based in the high schools, seeks out students who have no plans beyond graduation and enrolls them in a counseling program. Helping them assets their own employability, the course also urges the importance of such basics as good grooming, self-confidence, speaking well, and being on time.

And then it sends them out for job interviews -- with astonishing results. In Delaware's class of 1980, 60 percent of the 600 students in the program found jobs by the end of July -- twice as many as those in a "control group" of students with similar backgrounds -- and 85 percent were in work by September. After they hire, they maintain contact with counselors for the next nine months. The cost: $1,500 per placement, Governor du Pont says. (The CETA program, which includes expensive skill training, spends about $6,000 per participant, while the federally-funded Youth Employment Training Program spends $9,400 per placement). After 14 months of steady work, the Delaware students will have repaid that $1,500 in taxes alone -- not counting the savings in welfare payments they did not have to receive.

For all their ingenuity, however, these are small bulwarks against the tide of unemployment. Where do we go from here?

In the short term, two roads hold promise. The Private Industry Council hopes to expand its summer offerings and perhaps to get into year-round job programs that expand into full-time work during the summer. And governor du Pont (backed by a board that includes Vice-President George Bush, former Vice-President Walter Mondale, Sen. Howard Baker, Gov. John D. Rockefeller of West virginia, and other luminaries) hopes to springboard his five-state program into federal funding and a nationwide base.

In the long term, however, the answer must lie in the schools themselves. Not as job-training institutions: There are so many jobs today that didn't exist 10 years ago that attempts to groom students for job slots may be no more than busywork. Instead, the schools must take the initiative -- and be given the authority by parents who care about them -- to instill the manners, standards, and mores that make students attractive to employers.

To do that -- to insist on such things as speaking well and knowing how to dress -- is not be cruel, but realistic. For there are not two worlds, that of work and that of school. There is only one. The really cruel deception is to let students imagine that mental laxity and me-first permissiveness will find a ready response in the world where people still work (some quite hard) to earn a living.

Roger Porter, talking of the need to meet the problem long before students graduate and seek work, puts it metaphorically. "It's difficult to depollute downstream," he says, "when the headwaters are poisoned."

Paul Groganl translates. "The long-term solution," he say s, "lies in making our basic institutions work."

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