Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez were among the speakers encouraging local businesses to offer positions for the city's summer youth jobs program. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)
Nijah Bryant, a 22-year-old from a rough part of West Baltimore, is ambitious, good with numbers and on a path toward a career in the hospitality industry.
But for years he struggled to get employers to see his potential. After leaving college to help support his family, he found it difficult to advance from jobs at stores.
"I would walk into an interview ... and there's an assumption about me already because of my peers," he said. "That can really hurt your self-esteem. You feel you don't have opportunities."
That changed last summer when he applied to a Baltimore youth employment program and landed a six-week job at the Baltimore Hilton. It opened up possibilities, Bryant said Wednesday, as city, state and federal officials urged employers to step up with more jobs this summer for teens and young adults. Bryant, who started the apprenticeship as a busboy and was hired full time in guest services, aspires to become a supervisor and work in revenue management.
The need to set city youth on paths toward careers with job training is greater than ever as Baltimore recovers from riots this spring, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Wednesday. She was joined at a news conference by U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and other government and business leaders who urged employers to help close a funding gap and pledge to hire at least one employee through the program.
YouthWorks, the city's five-week summer program for 14- to- 21-year olds, and its private-sector component, Hire One Youth, has about 1,000 more applicants than jobs this summer, Rawlings-Blake said. The program needs $1.5 million in added funding to reach a goal of hiring all of the nearly 8,000 young people who have applied.
Through a mix of state and city funding, with contributions from private employers and donors, the program has enough money to place 7,000 workers. This week, YouthWorks received $20,000 from United Way of Central Maryland and a slice of the proceeds from Prince's Rally 4 Peace concert last month.
"We're at an important crossroads in the city. We are a city that has challenges ... dealing with poverty and high unemployment," said Rawlings-Blake, adding that the unrest showed "whatever we were doing is not enough. ... Our young people want to learn and they deserve a chance to earn.
"I'm calling on businesses across the city to lend a hand," she said. "If they have never participated, now is the time to start. This is a no-brainer. We can put more young people to work."
Providing summer jobs for youths, especially in cities such as Baltimore, remains a high priority for the Obama administration, Perez said. Youth unemployment is at 11.6 percent nationwide for ages 16 to 24, and the rate jumps to 20 percent for black youths, he said.
"That is way too high," said Perez, who recalled that his earliest jobs included stints at Sears and on the back of a trash truck. "These jobs taught me so much about who I am today. ... Summer jobs tell young people they have worth and they can add value.
When Bryant went to work at the Hilton last summer, he started in the kitchen but asked to see how other departments operated and moved from purchasing to revenue to finance. Toward the end of the program, a guest services opening came up and he got the job.
"I'm about to interview for supervisor, and I've only been there eight months, but I'm pretty confident I'll get it," said Bryant, who was raised by a single mother and has six older siblings. "I feel like it will have a big impact in my career. When I want to move to the next step, they'll take me more seriously."
Most participants work part time at government agencies and nonprofits, earning the minimum wage, now $8.25 per hour in Maryland. But youths 16 and older have a chance to work for private businesses participating in Hire One Youth.
Besides Hilton Hotels & Resorts, employers that have tapped into the program include Wells Fargo Bank, Mercy Hospital and the Johns Hopkins University, which has pledged to increase its summer hiring through the program by 50 percent.
Wells Fargo has found three permanent employees through Hire One Youth, said Andrew M. Bertamini, regional president for the bank's Maryland region. And the bank has made a job offer to a fourth participant, he said.
The program has helped the bank find "quality individuals, who not only posses the skills but the desire to grow," he said.
One of the hires is East Baltimore resident Amber Barner, 23, who got her first job at age 14, at a day care center, thanks to YouthWorks. The jobs helped teach her responsibility, she said.
"I earned my paycheck, and I would buy my school uniform and school supplies," Barner said.
At age 20, while a student pursuing elementary education at the Community College of Baltimore County in Essex, she applied for a job through Hire One Youth, got help with resume-writing and interviewing skills and found herself being considered by several banks for a teller job. Wells Fargo stood out and she began to think about banking as a career. She now works full time as a teller, will continue with college in the fall and plans to pursue customer service jobs with more responsibility at Wells Fargo.
"The main thing is to help your customer succeed financially," she said. "That's important to me, to help someone to succeed ... and make the right decisions with money."
Alexandra Odom, 20, had looked for a mall store job after her freshman year of high school, but employers wanted older, more experienced workers. The East Baltimore resident turned to YouthWorks for a way to make money during the summer.
"I worked in Chinquapin Park picking up trash and cutting down weeds in 85 degree weather," she said. "That was probably the worst job I've ever had, but I reapplied the next year."
Odom worked in park maintenance again, this time in Patterson Park, and got a summer job in the mayor's office the year after that. That placement was especially beneficial because it was a "low-stakes" atmosphere for learning about the professional world.
"People kind of know this is your first job. You can ask questions. It's a comfortable environment," she said. "You can ask, 'I never had to send someone a business email before. How do you do it?'"
Odom, a rising senior history major at Grinnell College in Iowa, said she believes the jobs program is one answer to quelling violence in Baltimore communities.
"It could play a huge role," she said. "Being in these jobs where you're around people with professional careers — a lot of them are city positions, helping make our city work — being able to have these relationships when you're 14 years old can make you care about our city as well and invest your time.
"A lot of people who engage in violence don't feel they have a way to get out," she said. "This is a way to identify your options and network with people who have established careers."
With half the workforce expected to be made up of millennials in just five years, businesses should be relying on summer jobs programs to develop the workforce of the future, said Donald C. Fry, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee and chairman of the Hire One Youth program.
Last summer, 5,600 jobs were offered and 5,200 people worked at 500 work sites.
"We need to start workforce development efforts right now, today, at home," Fry said. Through apprenticeship programs like this, "we can identify skills and target skills [employees] need to acquire."
Last summer, Brendon Williams Jr., 19, of Clifton Park Terrace worked at The Best Battery Co. Inc., where he started batteries, loaded carts, made orders and assisted customers.
"It opened my eyes to the business world," said Williams, 19, who just completed his freshman year at the Community College of Baltimore County and plans to pursue a degree in business management. "It meant a lot. It had a big effect in my life."
Shaneice Richardson, a 19-year-old from East Baltimore, will work as a paid intern this summer at Veolia Energy, where she worked last summer. She helped with filing, organization, billing and corresponding with customers. She visited company clients such as the Four Seasons Hotel Baltimore, the National Aquarium and M&T Bank Stadium, where she toured the buildings and saw water piping and air-conditioning systems.
It was Richardson's first paying job and taught her how to manage a paycheck.
"Money goes quick," she said.
Richardson, a junior studying civil engineering who plans to transfer to Morgan State University in Baltimore, said programs such as YouthWorks can help make the streets more peaceful.
"If you're not going out working and making money, you start finding other things to do with your time," she said.