A summer job can mean money, experience and a reason to get up in the morning.
It can also mean the first significant responsibility in the life of a teenager, like 14-year-old Jewellz Mora of Clifton Park. Through the Saratoga County Summer Youth Employment Program, he is spending the season cleaning out classrooms at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School.
“I’ve never had responsibility like this,” Mora said. “I will be able to get a better job when I’m older with this experience.”
Without the opportunity presented through the program, he added, “I’d probably be sitting around at home.”
More than 400 teenagers like him will take part in similar programs that accept youths from families receiving public assistance or that have incomes below 200 percent of the poverty level, which is less than $40,000 for a family of three. This year the state is spending about $25 million to fund these programs, with more than $800,000 going to county programs in the Capital Region.
Participants in the program are placed at work sites run by nonprofit or government organizations, including schools, hospitals, libraries, museums and charities. Tasks can include meal preparation, cleaning, clerical work, camp counselor, maintenance, day care aide and gardening.
Local program administrators describe the spending on minimum wage jobs as a no-brainer.
The investment is touted as beneficial for teens, local businesses and taxpayers by Gail Breen, executive director at Fulton, Montgomery, and Schoharie Counties Workforce Development Board. Her program received about $200,000 to put 103 teens to work this summer.
“The larger benefit to the community is we’re helping kids find their way in society,” Breen said.
Simply by preparing teens to wake up on time, understand how to work with others and handle responsibility, she said, they’re producing desirable employees. Additionally, it creates a safe environment for teens to learn the rigors of office life without the looming threat of termination for the first mistake.
Advocates of the programs sum it up this way: participants get work experience, their paychecks are spent in the community and they’re more likely to become tax-paying citizens in the long run.
Saratoga County’s Summer Youth Employment Program coordinator, Katherine Raymond, added that most participants only spend one or two summers in the program and then find work on their own.
The programs can also go beyond the basic experience of a traditional first job. Because of a partnership with the Schenectady Boys & Girls Club, participants in Schenectady County’s program spend one day during the summer at the Schenectady County Community College, where they go through workshops on budgeting and banking, career exploration and finances. Teens working at the outreach center in Clifton Park had to write a business letter and a thank-you letter.
Lisa Scaccia, director of Saratoga County Employment and Training, said the need to fund this program stems from the high unemployment rate among teenagers. Across the country about one-fourth of teenagers looking for a job can’t find one, with the unemployment rate for teens hovering above 20 percent for the past four years.
When teens aren’t able to find work, it means they’re missing out on career development, according to Michael Saltsman, research director with the Employment Policies Institute in Washington, D.C.
“Summer jobs are the first rung on the employment ladder for most teenagers,” he said in a statement.
This sentiment was echoed by Michele Ostrender, a cleaner for the Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake School District, who was a product of a summer youth programs more than three decades ago. She worked at the Saratoga County Infirmary, where, she remembers, “I learned a good career.”
Ostrender is involved in the current summer youth program, working directly with Jewellz Mora and his brother, 19-year-old Shawn Knight. “These guys are doing wonderful,” she said. “They’re learning a life skill, working hard and doing great. I wish more kids could do it.”
If a cleaning position becomes available within the district, Ostrender said, she hopes Knight, who graduated from Shenendehowa High School this summer, will apply. She noted that previous participants in the summer youth program have gone on to find full- and part-time jobs with the school district.
More mentor than boss
The type of supervision by Ostrender, who has become more of a mentor than a boss, is a key component of the programs, according to Schenectady County spokesman Joe McQueen. “Truly this is at the heart of the program, establishing a working relationship bet ween the participant and the work site supervisor,” he said.
Additionally, McQueen noted that participants in Schenectady County are monitored by “job coaches” who oversee activities, keep attendance and monitor performance. Schenectady County received almost $150,000 from the state for its program, with a total budget of about $200,000 as the result of juvenile justice funds and a grant through Cornell Cooperative Extension.
When possible, the programs try to place participants in a field of work that they might be interested in for a career. Then they can shadow someone in that field and decide if that’s something they might want to pursue. For instance, teens interested in a career in medicine can work at a hospital such as Nathan Littauer in Gloversville, where they serve lunch and assist staff.
Finding appropriate work sites is one of the major challenges of the program, according to Breen, who said, “We have kids with big expectations and big dreams … and it’s not always possible to place them on the work site they prefer.”
Stephanie Birrell, 15, of Clifton Park, got her preferred site and was able to return this summer to the outreach center in Clifton Park. She loved the first year and hopes that with two years under her belt someone will hire her for an after-school job in the fall.
At the outreach center, Birrell does a hodgepodge of different tasks, including serving meals and planting flowers. On a recent Wednesday, she was practicing songs and going over tips to be a role model in advance of a summer camp where she will be a counselor.
She said the biggest benefit from the program is interacting with people, which has prepared her for future careers that interest her, ranging from hairdresser to police officer.
For Tristan Whitehead, 14, of Clifton Park, who is also working at the outreach center, the earnings from this job mean he gets to open his first savings account. He said the savings will eventually go toward paying for a college or a car, although he has plans to spend some money now on sneakers and his telephone bill.
Demand is high for the program, with Schenectady County only able to find spots for about half of the 400 initial applicants this year. Breen said teens from Montgomery, Fulton and Schoharie counties began inquiring about summer jobs in January.
State funding for the county programs, which has been relatively level under Gov. Andrew Cuomo, can be augmented by other pools of money, like federal support or private grants.
Because these programs regularly have to place teens on waiting lists or eventually turn them away, the hope is that more funding can be made available. Breen said, “If legislators are listening, we really hope there is more money out there.”
Most of the summer youth works programs conclude in the middle of August. Saratoga County recognizes the hard work of its participants at the end of the summer with a picnic, for which they need donations to make happen.
Anyone interested in finding out more information about these programs should contact their county’s department of social services.