With no federal stimulus money available this year, participation in a key summer employment program for city youth has fallen to the lowest level since before the recession began.
About 5,400 young people have been placed in jobs this summer through the city's YouthWorks program. That's down from last year's peak of 7,000 jobs, when about $2 million in stimulus funds was pumped into the program.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake preserved the city's contribution of $1.6 million to the program, despite the city's bleakest budget in recent memory.
The purpose of the summer jobs program is "not simply to keep kids occupied … but to develop skills employers require," said Rawlings-Blake. She said studies show teens with work experience find jobs sooner after graduation and earn higher wages.
Students are matched with jobs in the city's fastest-growing fields, such as biotechnology, hospitality and medicine, said Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development.
The young people, who range in age from 14 to 24, work 30 hours per week for six weeks and are paid the minimum wage.
Most of the wages are subsized with public funds, but about 190 young people were hired directly by private companies, said Brice Freeman, a spokesman for the employement development office.
Rawlings-Blake joined Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and John Sarbanes at the National Aquarium Monday morning to tout $575,000 in federal money for the program. About two dozen youthful Aquarium workers, dressed in matching blue polo shirts and khaki pants, attended the event.
Dayna King, a senior at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, is working at the aquarium for his second year. He has been hired to stay on part-time at the tourist attraction through the school year.
"Before you would be applying from store to store, not getting anywhere," he said. "Summer 2009 was the best summer ever because I had a job."
But youth advocates with the Baltimore Algebra Project say the city must do more to guarantee summer employment. The organization, which tutors local students, has staged a series of protests against a long-planned $100 million prison for teenagers charged with crimes as adults and have urged those funds be diverted to youth jobs and education.
"There wouldn't be a YouthWorks crisis if the city had stood alongside the Algebra Project on that issue," said Baltimore City Community College student Bryant Muldrew, 22, a youth advocate with the organization.
The Baltimore Algebra Project has hired about 40 teens through YouthWorks, half as many as last year, he said.
Under Mayor Sheila Dixon, a strong advocate of YouthWorks, the program grew from 5,400 participants in 2007 to 6,500 in 2008 and 7,000 in 2009.
As part of the plea agreement in the criminal case that led to her resignation, Dixon asked that the proceeds of the sale of fur coats and a video game system that were confiscated from her home be directed to YouthWorks.
The tough economy has made it much more difficult for teenagers to find work across the country. Unemployment among 16- to 19-year-olds is at about 26 percent, almost triple the national average for all ages and a 10 percent jump from two years ago.
Historically, teens face tougher odds of finding jobs during a recession, said Kai Filion, a policy analyst at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.
"Right now, there are about five unemployed workers for every job opening," he said. "If you're given a choice of someone who has experience and someone who's not even out of high school, you're going to choose someone with experience. They're competing against older adults with more job experience."
The teen unemployment rate doesn't include the 1.4 million young people who have stopped looking for jobs since the recession began in December 2007, Filion said.
He said youth employment is important because it can have lasting repercussions on teens as they become adults.
"There is research that shows summer jobs for teens has a positive impact on their employment later on," he said. "If also gives you a foot in the door. It gives teenagers confidence and job skills. The first job for anyone is incredibly important for finding jobs later on."
Baltimore Sun reporter Hanah Cho contributed to this article.
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