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Tight economy cuts teens' summer job opportunities

Omar Orellana, 14, fills out an application for a summer job at the Chelsea Collaborative. The agency is in danger of losing a private $75,000 grant. Omar Orellana, 14, fills out an application for a summer job at the Chelsea Collaborative. The agency is in danger of losing a private $75,000 grant. (Boston Globe Photo / Patricia McDonnell)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / May 22, 2008

Hamido Sidow was one of the stragglers at a recent summer youth employment event in Chelsea, hoping to land her first job.

She loves children and said she would like to spend her summer vacation working around them, possibly at the library.

For Sidow, 14, a Browne Middle School eighth-grader, a summer job is less a pastime and more a necessity.

"I need to work to help my daddy, to help pay the bills and help my mom," said Sidow, whose family, Somali Bantu refugees, has been living in Chelsea for four years. "I want to be able to make money so if my little brother, if he wants ice cream, I can buy it for him."

Like Sidow, thousands of teenagers across the region have depended on summer jobs to help their families, save for college, or to have a little spending money. But a series of state aid cuts, evaporating donations to jobs organizations, and struggling local businesses have amounted to the most difficult youth job market in recent years, said Geoffrey Rockett, associate director at the Metro North Regional Employment Board, which provides career assistance in 20 communities north of Boston.

"As the economy slows down, teens may be competing against adults," Rockett said. "Pure competition - it's an effect of the gradually shrinking job pool that we're sort of mired in this little recession here. . . . So all of that kind of conspires to tighten the situation for teenagers."

In anticipation of the sluggish job market, Governor Deval L. Patrick last week announced a 27 percent increase in funding for the state's YouthWorks summer jobs program, to $5.6 million. YouthWorks funds jobs for low-income students in 25 communities, including Chelsea, Haverhill, Lynn, Salem, and Malden, which was included for the first time this year.

The Metro North region, which includes Cambridge, Chelsea, and Malden, is slated to share $288,862 in YouthWorks funds this summer. The North Shore sector, Lynn and Salem, will get $238,442, and the Lower Merrimack, Lawrence, and Haverhill, will receive $336,655.

The extra money, distributed by municipal governments, comes at a critical time for job organizers such as the Chelsea Collaborative, which is in danger of losing a private $75,000 grant, according to Gladys Vega, the nonprofit's executive director. To receive the grant, the collaborative must match it dollar-for-dollar by June 30 or the program, which provides about 250 teens with summer jobs, will be in jeopardy. So far, Vega said the organization has raised $25,000, and is reaching out to Chelsea Chamber of Commerce members and private donors for help.

Even if it gets some YouthWorks money, Roseann Bongiovanni, associate executive director, said the collaborative still might not reach its longtime goal of finding jobs for 300 Chelsea teens because it will be paying the increased $8 an hour minimum wage, up from $7.50 last summer. Besides jobs in recreation, public works, and other municipal departments, programs such as the collaborative also pay salaries for some teens employed by local businesses and nonprofits.

In Malden, the YouthWorks money will help improve a municipal program funded through community block grants. Up to 50 more youngsters will be hired, jobs will now be offered to 14- and 15-year-olds, and the program will start in June instead of July, said Christine DiPietro, the city's summer job coordinator and director of human services.

"I think the kids are lucky to get these jobs and we're blessed to get this money to help more kids," DiPietro said. "I'll have over 100 applications before the month is up."

With more business owners tightening their belts, organizers are working hard to get them to take chances on teen workers.

"Certainly there are a lot of kids looking for summer jobs, and there are fewer jobs out there because employers are hiring fewer people, because now they can't afford to do it," said Patricia Driscoll, executive director of Girls Inc. in Lynn, which helps 14- to 18-year-olds find jobs. "Hiring a teen can be extra work, and if [employers] are already stretched because they either had to let staff go or lay off positions, they won't want to take on a teen."

Beth Doiron, director of operations for the Boston-based Jobs for Bay State Graduates, said what's happening now is a "trickle-down effect" of adults taking jobs that would usually go to older teens, and older teens forced to take jobs that would normally go to younger teens, such as retail or fast food. While this is a statewide trend, Doiron said she's noticing it more in Lynn and Haverhill.

"The typical calls they've always received from places that typically hire teens, like landscapers, construction, country club golf courses, restaurants, water parks, are not calling, not as much as they have in the past," Doiron said. "From what we're seeing from talking with various specialists, many of these jobs may be taken up by older workers, or maybe they're not anticipating the crowds this year that they anticipated in the past. Students who are working now are seeing a cut in their summer hours."

In Haverhill, the effect of the economy on local jobs is so palpable that Arthur Chilingirian, executive director of ValleyWorks Career Center, is calling the situation a recession.

"It's going to be a tough summer for kids," Chilingirian said. "We're seeing a lot of businesses shut down and the foreclosures coming down and impacting the families. I want to say, I'm more pessimistic than most of the economists. . . . It's devastating to a teen, if they're not working, they're on the streets."

Meanwhile, Dorothy Siden, chairwoman of the economics department at Salem State College, said there is a good chance some local communities might weather the impending summer storm.

"In this area, the North Shore, one thing that will bring people here is tourism," Siden said. "That's probably up because of the [weakened] dollar and because people are probably going to travel locally. For summer here, I think you're still going to have a huge desire for tourism, and that's very seasonal, and that's very much [favorable] for the teenager and college student.

"We'll have foreign tourists. We're cheap now."

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com.

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