Fresh out of high school, Royal Brown had no job experience and was facing the toughest summer for teen employment in six decades when he went looking for work in June.
A few months later, the 18-year-old Rosedale resident's prospects are brightening. Goodwill Industries of the Chesapeake is training him and 17 other young men and women in the finer points of retail, complete with internships in its Baltimore-area stores.
Brown, who wants to land a job to help pay for college, found that employers weren't willing to take a chance on untested, teenage job candidates, so he's thrilled to be able to get around the roadblock. "A good opportunity," he said of the training.
Goodwill's new program for Baltimore residents up to age 21 is an effort to chip away at the high unemployment rate for young adults. More than a quarter of 16- to 19-year-olds in the labor force nationwide can't find work — three times the jobless rate among people age 25 and older. A lack of employment opportunities early on disproportionately effects low-income families and puts those teens behind in building a resume.
The nonprofit Goodwill, which operates thrift stores to help fund its worker training and job placement missions, has a city grant to run the 16-week teen program at least two more times after the first ends in October. Participants who finish the training and pass the exit exams will leave with customer-service and sales certifications from the National Retail Federation.
"With the tightened economy, the combination of the certification and the in-store experience, I think, just puts them a step ahead of their counterparts when they're looking for employment," said Deidre Webb, who coordinates the program, known as Youth Merchandising Training.
At the very least, the young adults know that one employer will be more likely to hire them: Goodwill. Program graduates can apply for any open positions at the nonprofit before they are advertised.
"Ideally, they would be prime candidates to move up into management," said Phil Holmes, vice president of public policy and development at Goodwill.
The scope of young-adult unemployment, like stubbornly high unemployment overall, is too big for one program to fix. In Maryland alone, 27,000 teens ages 16 to 19 sought work to no avail last year, according to the most up-to-date local statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor.
Some economists say increases to the minimum wage between 2007 and 2009 are a major culprit, discouraging employers from hiring young workers they would need to train. Others contend that businesses are so overwhelmed with job applicants that fewer need to hire from the ranks of the inexperienced, regardless of the pay.
Employment among 16- to 19-year-olds nationwide increased by just 960,000 between May and July, the month that hiring for summer jobs in the U.S. normally peaks, according to outplacement consulting firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That's the smallest uptick since 1949.
A rough teen job market might pale in comparison to the woes of unemployed adults with mortgages and children. But John A. Challenger, chief executive of the outplacement firm, sees a troubling trend that could cause problems for years.
"Those first jobs that teens get are foundational," he said. "There's risk that a greater percentage of this generation missing out on these jobs will feel like the workplace doesn't offer them a place. … You risk that more people in later life get disassociated from the economy."
For the young adults in Goodwill's program, a job means more than simply a first step toward a career and a bit of spending money. All come from lower-income families. Some already have children to support.
Jazmin Campbell, 20, has worked for a variety of employers but couldn't find a new job after giving birth five months ago. More than 60 applications, two interviews, no offers. She's hoping the program certifications will help get her back into the work force and position her for advancement.
"I'd really like to be a manager at a store … so I can have a better future for my son," said Campbell, who lives in Towson.
To help participants make ends meet, Goodwill is paying them $7.25 an hour — minimum wage — while they're working in its stores, and $5 an hour while they're in classroom training.
During one recent session, instructor Tracy McCullom had the youths think through the details of launching a business, from mission statements to customer-service policies. She wants to get her students in the mindset of retail managers and entrepreneurs to make them better employees — and to improve their prospects.
"If you're going to advance in your career, you've got to start thinking the way they think," said McCullom, who works for the Nolan Group, a training firm. Anne Arundel Community College, Goodwill's partner in the program, brought her in to teach the class.