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.

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.

Probably the bravest and most creative approach to teen-age employment this year comes from Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, D.C., who has promised a summer job -- at the regular minimum wage -- to every interested district youth between the ages of 14 and 21. Some 21,600 have accepted his offer. The District of Columbia has identified 19,000 jobs with government agencies and nonprofit organizations and has sent letters to 11,000 private employers asking them to hire young people.

Another encouraging sign comes from growing interest in state conservation corps and local community service programs that put teen-agers to work, teaching them marketable skills and encouraging their participation in community service. Some 30 of these programs have been started or are being planned by state and local governments, according to a Ford Foundation report.

Is this ``coddling''? Only if a helping hand and an open door can be considered unfair advantages. What happens on the other side of that door will still be the responsibility of the young employee. But by giving teen-agers a chance for training and entry-level work, these programs help to alleviate the Catch-22 of employment: You can't get a job without experience, and you can't get experience without a job.

We have made commitments to help very young children through programs such as Head Start. We have made commitments to help older people through social security and medicare. Perhaps it is time now to ask, seriously and repeatedly, what we can do to help young people achieve a measure of economic independence. We may not need a national program like the NYA, but we need a national commitment to a generation too often left to drift, rudderless, toward adulthood -- a status postponed later and later in our culture.

By encouraging teen-agers to develop skills and a degree of self-sufficiency now, these efforts can discourage dependence on public assistance later -- the proverbial difference between giving a man a fish and teaching him how to fish.

It is estimated that jail costs the taxpayer up to $30,000 a year per inmate. It is impossible to measure the cost in dollars of a single teen pregnancy or one case of drug addiction. Nobody can measure the cost beyond dollars to the individual and to society.

But even if idleness does not drive most adolescents to such extremes of behavior, to be young and unemployed is to run the risk of feeling aimless, bitter, and in despair. As one is stripped of function, one is stripped of self-esteem.

Fifty years ago my father solved his economic problems while also serving the economy. But there was more to it than that. At an important point in his life he was able to feel the satisfaction and self-respect that come from being a contributing member of the human enterprise. Is any social goal more to be desired?

Perhaps some combination of all the programs tried and proposed by government and the private sector will come nearest to a solution for unemployment among the young. Any sustained effort (and sustained is the operative word) must count as a bargain. The welfare of youth -- spiritual as well as financial -- is too important to be left to seasonal reforms and the random workings of the marketplace.

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