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Teens find solace and skills through summer job programs

Students in the Urban Alliance High School Internship program attend a life skills workshop. The summer program is one of many that works with teens in the District to try to lower a teen unemployment rate of 26 percent

Two students work on interviewing each other for Urban Alliance's Public Speaking Challenge

A student reads the 'Public Speaking Challenge'

Project coordinator Tyran Omary leads students from Dunbar High School

This summer, more than a quarter of work-ready teens will be unemployed. Several D.C.-based organizations are taking a stand against teen unemployment by providing underprivileged and at-risk teens with jobs and professional skills to ensure that they flourish in a rapidly changing work world.

“Each summer, more than 80 percent of our youth are from low-income homes,” says Maureen Dwyer, executive director of The Sitar Teen Internship Program, part of The Sitar Arts Center, an organization that aims to advance the critical life skills of underserved youth through the arts, and a participant in the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), a city-subsidized program that matches teens in the District to meaningful summer jobs that provide professional skills.

Sitar’s program offers teens three creative options for summer work. Students have the option to design a mural under an apprenticeship with a local artist, perform or work backstage for a summer musical, or work as camp counselors, helping younger children during visual arts, music and dance classes.

Although these jobs are innately artistic, Sitar’s main goal is to simply give kids the soft skills they need in order to survive in the work world, Dwyer says.

Summer jobs change teens’ perspectives
Growing up in Adams Morgan, Joel Perez was surrounded by quite a few out-of-work individuals, but when he began interning at Sitar as an office assistant, his perspective changed.

“I had more of a purpose,” Perez says. “I knew I had a job to do,” and there was more incentive to do it, he says. The 20-year-old is now a full-time employee at Sitar.

“When our youth don’t see their neighbors, parents, or family members going to work every day it makes … having a job seem like an unreal or unattainable thing,” says Eshauna Smith, president of Urban Alliance, another youth employment program.

Once the teens begin their paid internships at companies like Bank of America and Morgan Stanley, they begin to see that a full-time job is in fact something that’s attainable, Smith says.

Talib Madyun, program director at Y.O.U.R. Community Center, a SYEP participant that offers teens several summer job options, agrees. Teens experience a shift in thinking when they begin working there, he says. At the beginning, youth are a little resistant to the things the program tries to teach, but by the end they’re grateful.

Fewer jobs, more competition for teens
A major contributing factor to teen unemployment has been the changing face of the job market. There’s more competition for fewer jobs, says Michael Saltsman, research director at the Employment Policies Institute in Washington, D.C.

This means retail jobs that teens may have had no trouble finding a few years ago are now being sought by college grads, Saltsman says. As a result, anything that teenagers can do to set themselves apart can help, he says.

For example, Urban Alliance not only places rising high school seniors from 20 schools across the District in corporate internships, it also carves out time once a week for teens to learn workplace skills such as how to dress, communication, and time management, Smith says.

Those soft skills tend to have value later in life, EPI’s Saltsman says. High school seniors who held a job for 20 hours a week are likely to earn about 21 percent more annually than those who didn’t, Saltsman says.

The success of Urban Alliance's program is evident. 100 percent of the teens participating in the program graduate on time from high school, 90 percent are accepted to college and 85 percent graduate from college, Smith says.

Y.O.U.R. Community Center has taken skill building one step further by paying 14- and 15-year-olds to participate in a six week skill-building workshop which includes a heavy emphasis on professionalism.

Similar to a regular job, Y.O.U.R. Community Center requires a proper dress code and a sense of professionalism is expected at all times, Madyun says. Most of the kids don’t know anything about the professional world and usually they have "no clue" how to conduct themselves, he says.

The SYEP also allows the center to incentivize kids to take part, which ultimately leads to greater participation, Madyun says.

Sitar Arts Center’s Dwyer agrees. “There’s pretty unhealthy competition for their attention.” So being able to pay teens for their time is key, she says.

For a lot of these teens, a job doesn’t just provide them with spending money, but money for school supplies and other necessities, Dwyer says.

Madyun says that at-risk teens are up against so much in the District, a job occupies their time while giving them a sense of self-worth. 

Read more articles by Danielle Cralle.

Danielle Cralle is a journalist hailing from Chicago. She loves to write about any and everything, but she has extensive experience writing about health care. She can be reached at daniellecralle@gmail.com.
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