Back in the day, a summer job for a teen seemed like a rite of passage into adulthood. As recent as the early 1980s, more than 70 percent of high schoolers held summer jobs. Now, that number is closer to 40 percent.
The reasons are many but there are two significant ones that immediately come to mind. Rising minimum wages have forced service companies to put more work on fewer people or find ways to automate. Older workers idled by the Great Recession and the tepid economic growth that followed have taken jobs that teenagers held so they can have some income, as small as it may be.
So, there is a glaring lack of opportunity for youth.
It’s a disappointing situation for those teens who, individually, might have wanted to accrue some experience for their resumes while getting some cash to buy the latest gadgetry, get a car or save for college.
When looked at collectively, the economy suffers. Summer jobs were once the training ground for general acclimation into the workforce. They taught teens soft skills like urgency, showing up to work on time, and working well with others. Those same jobs introduced them to a variety of duties and responsibilities that could be expanded upon in the adult careers – inventory control, customer relations, and management to name a few.
How do we overcome this and ensure these kids get the experience they need to be productive adults?
One idea that you will probably be shocked to hear from this columnist that you’ve likely classified as conservative or libertarian over the years is something from the socialist’s arsenal: We could stand to use a modern version of the Civilian Conservation Corps.
As a reminder, the Civilian Conservation Corps was a critical component of FDR’s New Deal. During the Great Depression it put 3 million men to work in the nation's forests and parks, planting trees, building flood barriers, and maintaining trails. It gave them income at a time when it was hard to find and it improved the country’s natural assets. Locally, Letchworth State Park would not be what it is today without the efforts of the 3,000 men who toiled there as parts of the CCC.
A modern-day version -- run by municipalities or the states and not the federal government -- which would employ only teenagers as the general laborers at the minimum wage rate could answer the summer job shortage. The scope of the projects would not be as grand as that of the CCC; you couldn’t have teens run heavy equipment, use chainsaws, or take down trees.
But, look at any of the state parks to be found in this region or the state forests that dot our Southern Tier --- all of them are screaming for tender loving care. High schoolers could handle tasks like trail maintenance, erosion control, general clean-up and tree plantings. Doing so would give them critical job skills, get them sweaty with honest-to-goodness manual labor (God knows we need more exposure to that nowadays), and get them interested in and directly interacting with the environment (Americans talk a really good game about the environmentalism yet rarely get involved with it directly).
You might ask: Wouldn’t this be a drain on the economy?
I don’t believe it would be.
Teens save very little for the long-term; they will spend everything they earn. Being part-time, seasonal jobs that last two months a year, we wouldn’t see taxpayer outlays on pensions, health insurance, and all the other pricey benefits.
More importantly, it’s workforce development. This gritty work would do as much if not more for getting kids ready for the Real World than what some of their simpler summer jobs used to do. If the state is willing to give corporations millions (billions?) to develop workers, why not invest it directly in the workforce in their formative years so employers/taxpayers will have to put less into their training as adults?
New York has a similar program in place that is off by a demographic. The Excelsior Conservation Corps was created by the Cuomo Administration in 2015 and it tackles projects with CCC gusto, but it employs only those between the ages of 18 and 25 and there are only 50 workers in the program. The ECC also employs workers for 10-month stints, rather than over the summer between semesters.
A modified CCC/ECC program could do wonders in fixing teenager unemployment (which is 13.1 percent, three times the general workforce), hiking trails and stream beds, and our workplace-preparedness issues.
It’s time towns, counties and the state got their hands dirty -- or more accurately their teenagers’ hands dirty – and looked into the prospects of such an endeavor.
From the 14 August 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers