Summer jobs program encourages businesses to Hire One Youth

Amber Barner, 20, was hired by Wells Fargo Bank through the Hire One Youth summer jobs program.
Amber Barner, 20, was hired by Wells Fargo Bank through the Hire One Youth summer jobs program. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

Amber Barner has had a summer job through the city's YouthWorks program seven times, every year since she was 14. But this time is different. This time her job will outlast the summer.

That twist comes courtesy of Baltimore's fledgling effort to encourage businesses to hire young adults directly through the city's program, rather than simply donate money to help cover their wages elsewhere.

Wells Fargo, part of YouthWorks' new Hire One Youth initiative, decided to hire at least one young person for a permanent job.

"It's my first time working at a bank," said Barner, 20, a teller at the company's Hamilton branch. "I love it."

Hire One Youth is a summer jobs program. But city workforce development officials also see it as a career jump-start, and they're encouraging employers to keep young hires on staff beyond August.

The goal is to give students and new graduates a path to full-time work — which is now hard to come by, particularly for young adults.

Just a third of Maryland teens worked last summer, compared with well over half in 2000, according to an analysis by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Nationwide, the slump was just as severe. The center says the job market for teens isn't just rough, it's in a depression.

"The last two summers were the all-time record low for the country," said Andrew Sum, the center's director.

Various explanations have been offered for the sharp drop in teen employment, which began falling even before the recession: larger numbers of young people taking unpaid internships; more competition from older workers; a higher minimum wage.

Beyond that, companies don't do nearly as much summer hiring as they used to, Sum said.

"The whole summer job market has kind of collapsed on itself," he said.

And many cities scaled back or eliminated summer jobs programs during the past decade after federal funding set aside for such efforts ended. The exception was 2009, when federal stimulus money was available to help teens find jobs.

Baltimore officials, who helped other cities relaunch programs that year, say they have kept theirs afloat by piecing together funds. A substantial chunk of the roughly $6.4 million needed for YouthWorks this year comes from donations — big and small — with the rest covered by the city and state.

Far more is at stake than a bit of summer income. Job experience in teen years leads to work later, Sum said. The lack of it can have long-lasting negative effects.

"We're trying to build a strong workforce for the city of Baltimore," said Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, which runs YouthWorks. "You have to provide a learning ground for young people. None of us learned how to work by reading about it in a book."

More than 5,300 residents ages 14 to 21 have jobs through YouthWorks this summer. That's up from the usual 5,000, though it's not enough to put all who wanted a job to work — more than 7,000 young people applied.

The typical participant works 25 hours a week at $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage, and started in late June. Many are at government agencies or nonprofits.

But nearly 300 — all 16 or older — are working directly for businesses as part of Hire One Youth. About 100 companies have signed on since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched the campaign last fall.

It's an honest-to-goodness job, not charity, the city says.

Businesses chose their workers — all prepped with job readiness training — after interviewing candidates. Employers can fire workers who aren't up to par. And some firms brought their new hires on well before late June.

Andrew M. Bertamini, Wells Fargo's Maryland region president, said the bank has supported YouthWorks before this year with donations, financial literacy training and job assignments for some participants. But it had never put a YouthWorks student on its own payroll until this summer.

For Barner, the bank's first hire, that has meant benefits such as access to tuition reimbursement. With two weeks of training and four weeks on the job under her belt, Barner is "a pro now," Bertamini said.

"What we're trying to get more employers to do is not just to write a check, although we need money to keep YouthWorks going, but it's to hire," said Bertamini, who's on the Hire One Youth leadership team. "Expose them to the business and allow them to really get a full experience, and that might change their life."

Bertamini started at Wells Fargo as a teller. He's hoping that Barner, who is studying teacher education at the Community College of Baltimore County's Essex campus, will like her brush with banking so much that she decides to make a career of it, too.

Barner, who is quick with a smile and a handshake, said she appreciates the experience she's gained through her summer jobs. She doubts she would have been able to start so young — 14 — if not for the program's help.

"I learned to be at work on time and to do my job the way they asked of me," she said.

Her work goes far beyond mere adequacy, Bertamini said.

"We hire a lot of people, and Amber has really done a great job standing out as the model employee," he said.

Five times as many employers hired directly through YouthWorks this summer as last year, the city says. But some have done so for a while.

Take Mercy Medical Center, for instance. This year, the Baltimore hospital has one YouthWorks worker it hired for the summer and two others whose paychecks are covered by the program. All three worked at Mercy last year, too.

"We had such a wonderful experience with them last year that the departments where they're located are very happy to have them," said Mark Bailey, director of community engagement at Mercy. "One of them, this is his third summer with us."

Bailey said Mercy tries to provide valuable experiences — one college student studying physical therapy is working with patients recovering from knee- and hip-replacement surgeries — but notes that the benefits go both ways. With employees on vacation during the summer, the temporary help is well-timed.

"They pick up some of the slack," Bailey said.

The French Cos., a Baltimore property management and real estate development firm, has also hired YouthWorks participants for years. Jim French, the company president, encouraged other businesses to take part this year. He said he has a hard time choosing one or two teens from the pool of candidates the city provides and invariably wishes he could hire them all.

The YouthWorks kids often take on projects that might not get done otherwise — and that help the company long after they're gone. One worker produced an inventory of the firm's equipment and tools. Another mapped out routes to properties the company manages so maintenance crews don't need to stop and get directions to a unit they haven't visited in a while.

A few years ago, French said, he was speaking to big employers at a Greater Baltimore Committee gathering and asked how many had hired a YouthWorks participant. One hand went up.

"I was just shocked," he said. "But I think that's changing, and I think this Hire One Youth initiative was a good start toward that end."