Jobs can change teens’ lives, but the pickings are slim

Elizavetta Glotova wakes up every morning at 6:30 to catch the bus near her home in south Brooklyn, which she rides for an hour and 20 minutes before arriving at KPMG headquarters, a gleaming building on Manhattan's Park Avenue filled with suit-clad accountants and other professionals.

Glotova, 16, is one of only three teens at her finance program in James Madison High School who landed an internship through the school this summer. Research shows that connecting young people to the working world in their teenage years is crucial, but in the United States, such programs are still few and far between.

Glotova makes $11 an hour working on "the tax side of the firm," she explains, entering data into Excel spreadsheets that organizes employees into different mailing lists, among other tasks. Her two classmates work at the white-shoe financial services firm Ernst and Young and the credit rating agency Moodys.

"I was looking forward to having an internship the whole school year," she says. Glotova attends one of New York City's 32 National Academy Foundations, public schools that encourage students to take elective classes in certain career-focused specialties, and then helps them gain on-the-job experience in those fields while they're still in high school. Glotova's specialty is finance; she says she's had a keen interest in the subject ever since she began reading her father's copy of the Wall Street Journal as a kid.

Glotova learned how to use Excel in an accounting class she took last school year, and says she knew exactly what to wear on her first day of work, since her school has "Dress for Success" days on Wednesdays, when students wear business-casual outfits.

Research shows that connecting young people such as Glotova to work is a crucial education intervention that can pay off years later in higher earnings. Employed young people are more likely to stay in school, graduate, avoid getting pregnant, and go on to some post-secondary education, studies have shown. In Germany, students as young as 13 and 14 are expected to hold internships, as German companies partner with public schools to ensure young people are gaining the education skills they need in future employees.

But in America, such programs can be controversial. And the recent unemployment crisis has hit teens the hardest, leaving few work opportunities even for those most eager to land a summer job.

As we wrote in our first post in this series on vocational education, the education reform movement has largely ignored initiatives such as NAF that explicitly try to teach students career skills while they're still in high school. The Gates Foundation, which generously funds education-reform initiatives, does help bankroll NAF, but the general run of reform programs in public education focus on school-performance issues in lieu of bringing students into contact with the broader working world. The bulk of such school-management programs stress holding teachers accountable for their students' standardized test scores, encouraging the development of charter schools, and shutting down or re-staffing the very lowest-performing public schools.

Harvard Education School Professor Robert Schwartz released a searing "Pathways to Prosperity" report in February that criticized education reformers for their exclusive, "doomed to fail" focus on placing all graduates on the four-year college track. Schwartz argued that this approach leaves the country's most vulnerable kids jobless and skill-less. Schwartz cited "enormous" and "deeply rooted" prejudices against career-focused education as a barrier to ensuring more kids have access to job training. He told The Lookout there's a perception among elites--who largely drive innovation in K-12 education--that job-focused education is "for other people's kids."

"Historically--in the last 25 to 30 years in any event--vocational education in the United States has been seen as second class," Schwartz said. "I think particularly in urban districts there's been a sense that vocational education has too often been seen as a place to dump kids you don't know what to do with."

But vocational education doesn't have to mean "problem kids" laboring away on outdated equipment in shop class. The best programs, Schwartz argues, encourage kids to get post-secondary education while also giving them valuable skills during high school.

NAF was founded three decades ago by former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill to try to connect inner-city public school students with the world of white-collar work. A 15-year random-assignment study of NAF and other career academies found that students from large urban districts who were enrolled in career programs out-earned their counterparts without access to such programs by 11 percent in the eight years following their graduation. Young men drove that difference, making 17 percent more than the young men who graduated from the non-Academy group. More than 80 percent of the students in the sample were black and Hispanic, groups that are unemployed at a much higher rate than members of other racial and ethnic groups.

Even for teens whose schools encourage them to connect with work, the job market is daunting. Only 25 percent of all 16- to 19-year-olds have jobs right now, down from 45 percent in 2000. Of those counted by the government as officially looking for work, 75 percent are employed--a far lower percentage than that in any other age group. This summer is the third in a row where teens faced an unemployment rate greater than 20 percent.

"The risk is that if [teenagers] miss out on [the summer job experience], they become part of this lost generation of teens who never had a chance to get a foothold to take that first step on that career ladder," Michael Saltsman, a research fellow at the Employment Policies Institute,told NPR.

The unemployment crisis has made it tougher for NAF officials to place kids in internships, at least in New York.

"I think there's always a struggle to make sure there are enough internships," says NAF spokeswoman Dana Nachbar. "It's hard, it's definitely hard." Nearly 175 NAF interns were placed in internships in New York City this summer. About 5,000 students are enrolled in NAF IN New York City altogether. Still, Nachbar says most NAF students get some on-the-job experience before they graduate.

Glotova, who also works as a lifeguard on the weekends, says the opportunity to study finance in high school has changed her life.

"My best friend goes to a school that doesn't have any special programs that would allow her to have an internship and it's very different experience for me even though the schools are maybe 10 blocks apart," she says. "I have the experience to follow what my goals are while for her, she doesn't necessarily know what she wants to do, and it's not very career-based."

Two of Glotova's fellow high-school interns at KPMG, Owen McRae and Thomas Napolitano, also 16, agreed, saying jobs were scarce for teens.

"I guess for kids our age, it's kind of hard to find a job. I don't know if any other place is hiring unless you could be a cashier somewhere," McRae says.

Napolitano, who attends Tottenville High School, makes an hour and 15 minute commute from Staten Island to get to KPMG offices. He also works as a bus boy at a restaurant on the weekends. "We're all 16, we don't really have that many jobs or opportunities," he said. Napolitano says he's landed on his future career with this internship. "I love dealing with finance, I think it would be a nice job when you're older," he added.

Jackie Burgos, who graduated from NAF school Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn in 2004 and now works as a financial analyst for HBO, says she would never have been able to break into the finance industry without her high school internship at Citigroup. "I have no idea how I could have ended up working in Citigroup," she says. "I didn't have anyone who knew anyone or a friend of a friend. I wouldn't have even known that was possible."

Burgos, who immigrated as a child from the Dominican Republic, now mentors New York City teens about career opportunities.

"It's just really hard," she said. "It's not that they aren't talented or hardworking--it's just that they don't know what's out there."

CORRECTION: This article originally misstated the high school Burgos attended.

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