How to Get Inner-City Teenagers on a Career Track

Boston’s summer-jobs program puts thousands of teens in professional environments, giving them mentors and experience.

Melinda Gates (2nd R) and US President Barack Obama speak with students while touring TechBoston Academy in Boston, MA, March 8, 2011. 
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
April 10, 2014, 3:27 a.m.

This art­icle is part of a series for the Next Eco­nomy on Amer­ic­an teen­agers and em­ploy­ment.

Ray­ford Le­conte wants to be a pat­ent at­tor­ney. That may sound like a very spe­cif­ic ca­reer goal for an 18-year-old from the tough Bo­ston neigh­bor­hood of Roxbury, but Le­conte knows what he’s talk­ing about, thanks to a sum­mer in­tern­ship in the leg­al de­part­ment of one of Bo­ston’s largest bi­otech com­pan­ies.

“Be­fore I worked at Gen­zyme, I wanted to work in either nurs­ing or busi­ness,” says Le­conte. “Then my man­ager told me about jobs where you are re­quired to have a sci­ence back­ground and still be in busi­ness.” Presto, Le­conte latched onto a new, lofty ca­reer goal.

Ex­pos­ing Bo­ston teens to a wider ar­ray of po­ten­tial ca­reers is part of the mis­sion of the Bo­ston Private In­dustry Coun­cil, a not-for-profit foun­ded 35 years ago to de­vel­op the city’s work­force. Known as PIC, the coun­cil helps run part of Bo­ston’s long-stand­ing sum­mer-jobs pro­gram by pla­cing roughly 3,000 pub­lic high school stu­dents each year in hard-to-find po­s­i­tions that pay any­where from $8 to $12 per hour at cor­por­a­tions, hos­pit­als, health care com­pan­ies, and com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions. Roughly 40 per­cent of the stu­dents that PIC places in the private sec­tor work in health care or fin­an­cial ser­vices, two of the bright­est spots in the Bo­ston eco­nomy.

“What’s unique about the Bo­ston sum­mer-jobs pro­gram is the private-sec­tor com­mit­ment. We’re in­tro­du­cing urb­an high school stu­dents to pro­fes­sion­al en­vir­on­ments,” says Joseph McLaugh­lin, PIC’s re­search and eval­u­ation dir­ect­or. “That has a pay­off to em­ploy­ers as well, since they want to grow their fu­ture work­force.”

Over the last few years, PIC has placed stu­dents at or­gan­iz­a­tions as di­verse as Gen­zyme; State Street, a glob­al fin­an­cial-ser­vices com­pany; and Brigham and Wo­men’s Hos­pit­al, a massive Bo­ston aca­dem­ic med­ic­al cen­ter. But PIC does more than just broker the sum­mer in­tern­ships. Its ca­reer spe­cial­ists also pre­pare stu­dents throughout the school year by teach­ing them to dress pro­fes­sion­ally and by set­ting ex­pect­a­tions for the work they’ll do over the sum­mer. Stu­dents like Le­conte can en­roll in PIC-led résumé work­shops and mock in­ter­views. The non­profit also em­ploys an army of em­ploy­er ac­count man­agers, who woo com­pan­ies to par­ti­cip­ate in the pro­gram and en­sure that they re­main happy with the stu­dents they hire and the over­all sum­mer-jobs ex­per­i­ence.

“Our pro­gram would not be suc­cess­ful without them,” says Geoff Ver­caut­er­en, dir­ect­or of work­force de­vel­op­ment of Brigham and Wo­men’s Hos­pit­al. “We set stand­ards for who we are look­ing for. We share it with our PIC ca­reer coun­selors, and they identi­fy kids. They know us very well. They know what we are look­ing for. We treat our sum­mer youth as reg­u­lar em­ploy­ees.”

This at­ten­tion to de­tail may sound like overkill — it’s just a sum­mer job, after all — but in this tough labor mar­ket, that level of ef­fort is what it takes to help im­prove the long-term ca­reer pro­spects for teen­agers, es­pe­cially those who grow up without many built-in ad­vant­ages.

The teen un­em­ploy­ment rate clocked in at 20.9 per­cent in March, ac­cord­ing to the latest data from the Bur­eau of Labor Stat­ist­ics, and it shows few signs of abat­ing. It’s enough for Bo­ston eco­nom­ist An­drew Sum to call this par­tic­u­lar mo­ment a crisis for teen em­ploy­ment, which will hurt young people’s fu­ture earn­ings and ca­reer pro­spects. “The kids who need work the most are get­ting it the least,” Sum says. “That’s why the prob­lem de­serves more at­ten­tion.”

Oth­er cit­ies and not-for-profits run sim­il­ar sum­mer-jobs pro­grams for teens, though not all can match Bo­ston’s ro­bust, ex­pans­ive pro­gram. The Dis­trict of Columbia gov­ern­ment, for ex­ample, has run a sum­mer-jobs pro­gram for dec­ades, but it ran in­to well-chron­icled mis­man­age­ment is­sues in the late 2000s. Un­der the cur­rent may­or, the city jobs pro­gram has tried to fix its woes by serving slightly few­er stu­dents and pla­cing them in more ful­filling jobs, says Ger­ren Price, D.C.’s deputy dir­ect­or of youth pro­grams. Last year, D.C. hired about 14,000 pub­lic school stu­dents for its sum­mer-jobs pro­gram; few­er than 1,000 of those stu­dents work in the private sec­tor. The ma­jor­ity in­stead work for not-for-profits, com­munity or­gan­iz­a­tions, day-care cen­ters, or gov­ern­ment agen­cies. “It de­pends on what the need is for em­ploy­ers,” Price says.

A smal­ler not-for-profit called Urb­an Al­li­ance also runs sum­mer-jobs pro­grams in D.C., Bal­timore, and Chica­go, serving roughly 350 stu­dents a year. Its founder star­ted the pro­gram in the mid-1990s, after he vo­lun­teered at an Anacos­tia high school in D.C. and real­ized that the stu­dents’ greatest need was find­ing after-school and sum­mer work. “What dif­fer­en­ti­ates our pro­gram is that we don’t take the cream-of-the-crop stu­dent. We aim to help people un­der-the-radar, the ones who are coast­ing by or the av­er­age stu­dent, and place them in top-notch places,” says Wendy-Ann Dix­on-DuBois, the group’s dir­ect­or of out­reach and com­mu­nic­a­tions.

Eco­nom­ists like Sum are fans of sum­mer-jobs pro­grams be­cause they give stu­dents work ex­per­i­ence, teach them com­mu­nic­a­tion skills, and al­low them to earn some cash. But Robert Ler­man, an eco­nom­ics pro­fess­or at Amer­ic­an Uni­versity, ar­gues that such sum­mer-jobs pro­grams need more eval­u­ation and rig­or: at­ten­tion to both the res­ults they pro­duce as well as some way to quanti­fy what the stu­dents learn. “I would like to see some kind of cer­ti­fic­a­tion for the stu­dents that shows they’re learn­ing em­ploy­able skills,” he says.

Such cri­ti­cisms do not over­shad­ow the ex­cite­ment in Le­conte’s voice, however, as he talks about his leg­al as­sist­ant job at Gen­zyme. After his sum­mer in­tern­ship ended, the com­pany offered him a part-time, after-school po­s­i­tion and bumped up his pay to $14 an hour — more than he thought he could make as a high school stu­dent. It feels like a great op­por­tun­ity for him, as one of six kids whose fath­er is dis­abled and whose moth­er works in the cafet­er­ia of a Bo­ston pub­lic school.

When Le­conte gradu­ates in June, he’ll work again for Gen­zyme throughout the sum­mer to save money for col­lege. More im­port­ant, his work has taught him les­sons that can take adults years to mas­ter. He quickly ticks them off when asked what he has learned. “You should al­ways keep up your con­nec­tions,” he says. “You should nev­er burn bridges, and you should ab­sorb as much as you can. You can learn so much.”

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