Last year, hundreds of Pittsburgh teens and young adults were placed in summer jobs through the city’s Learn & Earn employment program. These were not your grandma’s summer jobs, though. No painting fences or mowing lawns. Young people gave presentations at foundations, took calls in government offices, and taught at summer camps. At workforce readiness training, they learned practical job skills as well as the all-valuable “soft skills.”

The only hitch? There were just 552 spots in the program—for about 2,000 applicants.

“What broke my heart is we had 2,000 kids who said: ‘I want an opportunity to do this. I want an opportunity to find what my career path is, and I want that opportunity [to] make a resume builder,’” said Mayor Bill Peduto in a WESA-FM story about Learn & Earn. “For every kid we were saying yes to, we were saying no to two.”

This year, the city decided to go big or go home. Partnering with the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board and Allegheny County, it nearly quadrupled the number of openings for economically disadvantaged youth, placing more than 1,800 students in summer jobs across the city. Learn & Earn is also part of Pittsburgh City of Learning, a web of summer programs designed to turn the city into a giant campus. Young people ages 14 to 21 are working in healthcare facilities, video game studios, libraries, urban gardens, and corporate settings. They are infusing the workforce with new talent at a time when teens, especially low-income teens and young people of color, find it tougher than ever to land a summer job.

 They are infusing the workforce with new talent at a time when teens, especially low-income teens and young people of color, find it tougher than ever to land a summer job.

WANTED: MORE WORK

Stefani Pashman, CEO of the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board, recently told Pittsburgh’s local NPR station that the timing was right to expand the program. In Allegheny County, the summer job market shrank by 55 percent between 2000 and 2013, according to data from the board.

The story is similar around the country. According to new Pew research, fewer than a third of teens had jobs last summer—a historic low going back 70 years. A report on teen labor markets by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University found, “No other age group in the U.S. has fared as poorly as teenagers over the past decade.”

For youth of color, nabbing a summer job is even more of a challenge. Last year, the summer employment rate for 16- to 19-year-old white youth was 34 percent, compared to 19.3 percent for black youth and 25 percent for Hispanic youth.

Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald recently told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that while a summer paycheck is important, a summer without a job is also a missed opportunity for young people to gain critical work skills, meet mentors, and develop their interests. Research has found working in high school increases the likelihood of a smoother transition to the workforce and, in some cases, can promote school persistence and graduation.

Young people also miss a chance to discover what industries they like—or want to avoid.

“We’re trying very hard to get youth exposed to the full diversity of careers available to them,” Pashman said.

 

THE BASIC STRATEGY

To reach that kind of diversity, the program’s nearly 40 contracting organizations identify jobs like teaching at children’s camps or working for banks, park departments, community-based agencies, and corporations. Those contracting organizations, which including Gwen’s Girls, Homewood Children’s Village, and YouthPlaces, have connections with businesses in the their communities and know how to work with young people.

Depending on their age and experience, teens are placed in three “tiers” and all go through workforce readiness training, which includes the not-so-simple “basics”–writing resumes, handling interviews, and what to wear to work. The LUMA Institute, a Pittsburgh-based design education company, developed the training curriculum.

Younger participants create “storyboards” that illustrate their aspirations, professional goals, and strengths or pitfalls. Teens placed in the third tier conduct interviews with company stakeholders and research different career paths.Learn & EarnPlus, as teens go through this training they earn badges—a type of digital credential that helps document the skills they learn outside of school. Young people earn the “reliable talent” badge if they have good attendance at their job and communicate with their supervisor if they need to miss any days, for example. Like badges teens earn in other City of Learning programs, young people can show them off in an online portfolio.

The $4.3 million program is a public-private partnership funded by government money, foundation grants, and corporate sponsorship. While each company pays about $2,000 for every student it hosts, Learn & Earn distributes the students’ paychecks, for about 30 hours per week, making it easier for companies to participate.

“If they’re going to host the student, we will take care of all the paperwork, they’ll be on our payroll, and if they don’t show up it’s our problem,” Pashman told TribLIVE.

SUMMERS THAT PAY OFF

The program’s impact is already visible in participants’ lives.

Last summer, 21-year-old Hannibal Hopson was placed in Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus’s office. From day one, he was the first line of assistance for concerned citizens in the city’s third council district, taking calls and handling problems like overgrowth on vacant lots and reports of deer and wildlife in the city.

“The staff made me feel my work was impactful, no matter how small it was.”

“I got to walk into the office everyday and think, ‘Who knows what will happen?’,” Hopson said. “The staff made me feel my work was impactful, no matter how small it was.”

Hopson, who was taking a year away from college, ended up being promoted to community relations assistant and working at the office for the full year.

This year, a group of 25 teens is interning at Simcoach Games. They are creating games like Jobopoly to help the Three Rivers Workforce Investment Board teach young people about work skills and professionalism. And the process of creating the game itself, which requires design and teamwork, builds skills the teens will carry with them long after summer ends.