Chicago teens say: Provide more federal funds to boost youth employment

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For the past three years, 19-year-old Derrick Hackett has been looking for an after-school job, to no avail. A graduate of Kenwood Academy, Hackett is currently a sophomore at Harold Washington College and needs the income to put himself through school. But whenever Hackett applies for a job, he gets the same reason for being turned down: He has no work experience.

For the past three years, 19-year-old Derrick Hackett has been looking for an after-school job, to no avail. A graduate of Kenwood Academy, Hackett is currently a sophomore at Harold Washington College and needs the income to put himself through school. 

But whenever Hackett applies for a job, he gets the same reason for being turned down: He has no work experience.

Hackett is not alone. His experience mirrors that of other teens who gathered at the Chicago Urban League Tuesday afternoon, to talk to lawmakers, youth advocates and other officials about the difficulties they face in finding jobs and to ask for more federal funds for youth employment. City Clerk Miguel del Valle and State Sen. Kwame Raoul were among those at the event. U.S. Sen. Roland Burris sent a representative.

The event opened with the release of statistics about the dire employment situation facing teens. Youth employment in Chicago has fallen by nearly 50 percent since 2000,  said Joseph McLaughlin, senior research associate at Northeastern University in Boston. The groups hit hardest are low-income black and Latino youth. Only 15 percent of teenage black males had a job at any point in 2008.

The organizers of the event want the federal government to allocate $1.5 billion for youth employment and dropout re-enrollment programs, as well as an expansion of paid internship programs and work-based learning opportunities. Alternative Schools Network Executive Director Jack Wuest stressed the importance of providing the money.

The teenagers argued that providing more jobs would help curb gang violence and drug-dealing because young people would have a way to earn money in an honest way. They also noted the importance of providing jobs to help youth become productive citizens and good leaders. Yet too often, they encounter employers who tell them that have too little experience, even for jobs in the fast food and retail industries. 

Leslie Drish, the director of education for Chicago Urban League, said she is optimistic that the event will lead to an increase in state and national government funding. But some teens were skeptical.

“I don’t think it will make much difference, but it’s a step in the right direction,” said Hackett. “The more we can get the word out about this problem, the better.”