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Job Program Helps Colorado Teens Find Work

Creative Commons

Even with fewer teenagers actively looking for work this summer, unemployment among young people remains at just over 24 percent nationally. And that figure is very similar in Colorado. But one program is working to reverse that trend by offering highly specialized training to help teens compete in the adult job market.


In a large, well-air conditioned room at the Colorado Convention Center – 300 young people between the ages of 14-21 are waiting quietly for what may be their best chance to find a job. This is a special kind of job fair, the culmination of weeks of training in the Summer Youth Employment Program, which serves teens from low income households in Denver.

I’m feeling real confident,” said 15 year old Javonte Jiles-Wright. “I think I’m going to get the job.”

But even here, around a third of the kids enrolled in the program may not get hired.

“I filled out like ten applications, and none have still called me back yet,” said Jiles-Wright.

His checkered shirt hangs untucked. With his hands at his sides Jiles-Wright tells me that he’s been looking for a job for almost a year and that’s why his mom put him in this program without asking him.

“Since I’m like the teen of today, and all of the jobs are taken up, it’s like, when you’re looking around you kind of give up hope, and you don’t even want to look no more,” said Jiles Wright.

“When I was a kid, we all had jobs,” said Patrick Holwell, a workforce economist for Arapahoe/Douglas Works, (a workforce center in Centennial). “All of us had a job, it was expected. You know, your parents would lock you out of the house during summer unless you got a job.”

Of course, that was back in the 1970s.

Not only was teen unemployment much lower back then, a much higher percentage of teenagers were working or looking for work. According to Holwell, teens of today are no longer competing with each other for minimum wage jobs—they’re competing with adults.

“When the recession hit, what we saw were hundreds of thousands (well, millions) of adults out of work, and they’re competing for any job they can get,” said Holwell. “What that did was drive the teenagers further out of the market.”

And yet, teen unemployment always lags behind its adult counterpart. Even in 2006 – when adult unemployment in Colorado was at 4.2% – youth unemployment was just under 16% (according the Colorado Department of Labor).The reason for this discrepancy is a lack of confidence, availability, and experience.

That’s exactly why the Labor Department hosts the annual Summer Youth Employment Program.

Much of the job training is fairly straightforward basic skills--job readiness, for example, or work ethic. But the program also includes a few wrinkles designed to help both teens and employers integrate better into the workplace. Lori Mack is the program leader.

“We actually offer the employers a one day training as it relates to generations. This is the first time in history that you’ve got about four different generations in the workplace,” said Mack.

The employer training also includes an in-depth workshop on understanding the adolescent brain, including new research on the scientific phenomenon of “Emerging Adulthood.” Mack and her staff also offer extensive guidance on “relationships” in a broad sense, which 19 year old Luke Moscoso was not expecting.

“They tried to tie it in to job etiquette or something like that but you could tell that it was specifically aimed like—don’t have sex, don’t drink, don’t womanize,” said Moscoso. “It was just very interesting. It’s a job training, but for the first couple days it wasn’t.”

The employers involved with the program, though, see themselves as mentors for these kids, rather than just their bosses. Jose Amaro is an American Family Insurance agent hoping to help out a teenager or two.

“We don’t only teach them technical things, we teach them things about life we learned on our way to being better person, better worker, whatever you want,” said Amaro.

And what about Javonte Jiles-Wright, the kid we met at the beginning of this story? At the end the day, he found out that he got a job at a recreation center in Montbello.

“I just need to do a lap right now,” said Jiles-Wright. “You know, I feel like I accomplished something.”