Recruiting employers to hire teens

At a Camden jobs program, Sherriea Gordon shakes hands with a job-seeker. At left is Max Haubrich, 16, of Haddonfield. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
At a Camden jobs program, Sherriea Gordon shakes hands with a job-seeker. At left is Max Haubrich, 16, of Haddonfield. APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer
Posted: June 04, 2012

When the U.S. labor secretary came to Philadelphia a few weeks ago, she helped Mayor Nutter launch the city’s ambitious teen summer employment program.

"When you know people are relying on you, you have to do your best," Hilda L. Solis told dozens of teenagers in an ornate room in City Hall. "You have to show up on time, and you have to understand the culture of the place."

On Wednesday, in a rundown strip shopping center at the edge of Camden, teenagers showed up for job interviews for a new county program aiming to put 50 youngsters to work in science and technology summer jobs.

Just as Nutter pressed Philadelphia’s business community to step forward to hire 7,000 teenagers, Jeffrey Swartz, executive director of the Camden County Workforce Investment Board, was mounting a campaign to raise $100,000 to support Camden’s program.

"We hope it’s the start of a sustainable program for years to come," Swartz said.

"I just want a simple job so I can enter the workforce," said Khari Turner, 17, of Sicklerville. He has worked for his mother, and she cut him a lot of slack. He said the discipline of a real job would benefit him.

Not every teenager has to work, or wants to, but among those who want jobs, there’s an unemployment crisis — nearly one in four people ages 16 to 19 is out of work. In May, the unemployment rate for teens, 24.6 percent, was triple the 8.2 percent for the general working-age population.

In New Jersey, the situation is even worse, according to an analysis of U.S. census data by the Employment Policies Institute in Washington. As of April, teen unemployment in the Garden State had reached 26.1 percent, averaging monthly data for the preceding months.

In Pennsylvania, teen unemployment was 16.5 percent in April, the institute found. Teenage unemployment in Philadelphia reached 34.1 percent in 2010, according to the most recent available data from the U.S. Labor Department.

Beyond putting cash in teenagers’ pockets, summer jobs provide a crucial attachment to the labor force that pays off six to nine years later in higher wages, said Michael Saltsman, a policy analyst at the Employment Policies Institute. "The flip side of that is, basically, if they don’t get that experience, they are at a greater risk of being unemployed again in the future."

In addition to whatever practical skills teenagers pick up at work, they also acquire "soft skills," which Saltsman describes as "the invisible curriculum" — how to show up on time, act, talk, even how to dress.

Nutter urged employers to participate in the summer job program run by the Philadelphia Youth Network, a nonprofit that is primarily government funded.

Employers pay the network an average of $1,671 a teen for six weeks of part-time employment, 20 hours a week. The young person will earn just 58 percent of that amount, $960, or $8 an hour. Employers have the option of paying the students more. Most of the rest remains with the network.

The gap between what employers pay and what young people earn raises the question of what constitutes a summer jobs program. Is the idea simply to put teenagers to work? Or are there broader social goals?

"Today’s interns could be tomorrow’s CEOs," said Scott Mirkin, president of ESM Productions Inc., a Philadelphia event-planning company that takes a handful of youth network interns a year.

"I think it’s pretty important to provide some opportunities to young people who may, in some circumstances, sadly, not know what it means to see two parents, or even one parent, go off to work every day.

“That to me is really rewarding," he said.

Mirkin said he had no idea about the proportion of money the young people were earning in the youth network program, but said it didn’t surprise him, given the way the program is designed with its emphasis on training.

What makes the program different is that the youth network acts as the employer of record for the young people. The interns may report to Mirkin’s company, or to Independence Blue Cross, Comcast, or City Hall, but their paychecks come from the youth network.

So, in effect, it acts as a staffing agency, handling wages, payroll processing, and taxes such as Social Security and workers’ compensation — for about 65 percent of the total cost. The network’s overhead, which includes recruitment, training, placement, administration, and liability insurance, accounts for the remainder.

"That’s real money," Mirkin said of the extra payroll costs.

In the for-profit world, staffing agencies such as Kelly Services Inc. spend about 85 percent on wages and related costs and 15 percent on overhead. Profits can be slim (less than one percent in Kelly’s first quarter).

But the Philadelphia Youth Network and the Camden program, along with most youth programs, spend extra money on training.

In Camden, the young workers will begin their program with a three-day orientation.

In Philadelphia, "we have a Friday seminar," said Stacy Holland, the network’s chief operation officer. The weekly seminars provide reinforcement for soft skills such as punctuality and proper dress, while also giving students a chance to talk over what happened on the job.

The network also provides support and training to the businesses that take on youngsters. It holds seminars on employment law, as well as on how to handle the sometimes tricky issues that may arise with a teenage workforce.

One topic that comes up, for example, is professional dress. Holland said young people in the program may be wearing their best clothes to work, but their best clothes might be more appropriate in the neighborhood than the office. Or there might be a financial issue — some teenagers who come into the program are homeless.

Part of her solution, she said, may be to take the interns on a field trip to Liberty Place in Center City, where many office workers visit the food court. She and the interns look at passersby and evaluate their clothing.

That kind of help proved invaluable to Jannette Rivera, 21, of North Philadelphia, a graduate of Kensington Business and Finance High School.

Homeless as a youngster, with a mother whose formal education stopped in sixth grade, Rivera could be the poster child for the long-term value of a summer job for teenagers.

Now completing her freshman year at Connecticut College, Rivera worked at a nonprofit, a financial institution, and at Independence Blue Cross, where her immediate supervisor was then-chief executive Joseph Frick. She even had the opportunity to introduce former President Bill Clinton at an event at the National Constitution Center.

"We’re from the poor working class and I’d never been in the business world and never had access to the business world or insight into the business world," Rivera said.

"She’s a special person," Frick said. "What she embodies for me is the fact that young people have incredible personal and professional potential."

In a study the youth network commissioned, employers said that their prime motivation in participating was philanthropic but that they expected to get some work out of the students.

That requires finesse. John Clayton, who runs Independence Blue Cross’ high school intern program, said the biggest challenge was finding enough work for the students, partly because they finish assignments faster than he expected.

"Our students do real work," he said.

"You have to have the right expectations," Mirkin, the event planner, said, adding that he had noticed the teens are pros at Internet research. "Give them a research project — find out where I can get 5,000 red chairs."

When they arrive, he said, they get a quick seminar on phone and e-mail etiquette. "Within an hour, they are able to answer the phone and screen the calls. If they do that, and the research, it more than pays off the investment."

Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her "Jobbing" blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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