White House Launches Summer Youth Jobs Program

I see the Obama administration has added another initiative to its “We Can’t Wait” campaign — its own summer youth employment program.

The White House has decided to call it Summer Jobs+ because it’s broader — for better and perhaps worse — than a regular subsidized summer jobs program like the one we’re familiar with here in Washington, D.C.

As with the other “We Can’t Wait” initiatives, the President is using his powers as chief executive to achieve what he can on the jobs front because Congress didn’t pass his comprehensive jobs bill — and will pass only a few more pieces, if that.

The jobs bill includes a program called Pathways Back to Work. As with the successful, but now defunct TANF Emergency Contingency Fund, it would provide states with funding to support subsidized jobs for low-income people, including youth.

The youth component of Pathways would get $1.5 billion. No Congressional approval means no money.

Well, sort of. The Labor Department is using existing resources to support the voluntary participation of businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. Asking them to offer one or more of three types of work-related opportunities and giving them a toolkit to choose and prepare.

Three other federal agencies have committed to providing such opportunities. So have at least 34 for-profit and nonprofit organizations.

The program launched with commitments totaling 180,000 opportunities.

Seventy thousand of these are for-pay jobs and internships. The remainder are slots in programs designed to prepare youth for work, e.g., unpaid internships, mentoring, workshops in “soft skills” like time management and teamwork.

The goal is to have 250,000 opportunities — 100,000 of the earn as well as learn type.

The target for these opportunities are “disconnected youth,” i.e., young people between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in the workforce nor enrolled in school. Participating organizations, however, can apparently enroll any young people they choose.

The initiative is addressing a very real problem. Last summer, only 21 out of every 100 youth from low-income families had a job. The current unemployment rate for the age group is 16.7% — even higher for racial and ethnic minorities.

I’m inclined to think these youth need to be earning at least a minimum wage. The Secretary of Labor seems to think so too, since she talks about how important summer jobs were for her, growing up in a large family without a lot of money.

“In these tough economic times,” she adds, “many young people share their earnings with their families to help make ends meet.”

So I wonder how many “disconnected youth” will cotton to the idea of spending a good bit of their time preparing, at no pay, for the iffy prospects of a future job. Help with resume writing maybe. But time management?

These, however, are practical recruitment and retention issues. There’s also an underlying policy issue.

Specifically, the White House has put its stamp of approval on unpaid internships, since they’re one type of opportunity it urges organizations to provide.

Such internships are, I think a two-edged sword.

On the one hand, they can lead to full-time, paid employment — though mostly for young people who’ve got at least a college degree. So they may help keep youth connected or reconnect them to the education system.

On the other hand, unpaid internships can enable employers to replace workers — or at the very least, to avoid hiring more.

As the New York Times has reported, state labor officials have found that many employers are evading federal minimum wage requirements by using interns as free labor — and for work that has no genuine educational value.

The Labor Department itself is reportedly cracking down on them. Yet, at the same time, it’s encouraging employers to offer more unpaid internships to youth who are highly exploitable. Maybe at the expense of some job creation too.

The Obama administration is nevertheless doing the best it can with the hand it’s been dealt. And I hope that businesses, nonprofits and government agencies will answer its call.

Hope, in particular, that they provide meaningful paid work opportunities to low-income youth who are truly disconnected from the labor force — and likely to remain so without a pathway.

A new analysis estimates the lifetime cost of these youth at $1.6 trillion taxpayer dollars. Seems like a smart investment, as well as a humane one, to give some of them a chance.

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