Learning To Work 

Under a new proposal, the city's summer youth job program may be more equally divided between education and employment.

Last week, the City Council's Public Services and Neighborhoods committee discussed hiring

practices for the city's Summer Youth Employment Program. Students ages 14 to 21 are eligible, but under a previous council decision, 80 percent of those hired have to be between the ages of 16 and 21.

But councilman and teacher Bill Morrison proposed changing the ratio of hires to more accurately reflect the program's applicants.

"We have more 14- and 15-year-olds applying. To cap it at 20 percent isn't fair," Morrison said.

Of the applicants for this summer's program, 45 percent of them are students ages 14 and 15.

Because of labor laws, "sometimes it's more difficult for 14- and 15-year-olds to find legitimate things to do," said youth services and community affairs head Sara Lewis. "What we want to do — based on the data we have and the pool of students who applied — is hire students based on that percentage."

Lewis also noted that by the time students are selected for the program, many of the 16- to 21-year-olds have already found other employment on their own.

However, 14- and 15-year-olds hired by the city are placed in a career exploration program through Memphis City Schools and paid $6 an hour for 20 hours a week. Older students are assigned to worksites throughout the city and paid $6.85 an hour for 30 hours a week.

Longtime councilmember Barbara Swearengen Ware said the 20 percent hiring stipulation was meant to direct money to student workers and not staff.

"To say let's take the bulk of the jobs and pay somebody $25 an hour to give them some skills and pay students $6 to receive it, that's just not good math to me," she said. "Think about how many jobs that would be for 16- to 21-year-olds. I don't think this council can take money that's designated to help students and do anything other than help students."

But others argued that the extra training would benefit students.

Lewis said they were trying to address what she called a "pipeline" issue, with students not having the training to work for the companies involved in the program.

One major corporation needed 20 employees. It was told it could get 20 employees. [Four] showed up, and two of those four failed," she said. "The youngsters have to be taught work-readiness skills. They do not have them."

Morrison and Lewis said the proposed change would be a step toward a long-term solution. In addition to being a teacher, Morrison has a background in human resources.

"The biggest complaint from people in HR is that young people just don't have the basic skills. They don't know what to wear; they don't know what a resume should look like; they don't know what questions to ask during a job interview. We need to get them ready," he said.

He sees the proposed shift as a way to make the program more successful. "I think 16-, 17-, and 18-year-olds should already have the skills to get their own jobs," he said.

As for the younger students, "This is their job, to be students," he said. "The teachers who do this get $25 an hour, but that investment will pay off for students in the long run. They'll be able to find a higher-paying job, not just something entry-level."

The full council is expected to review the change March 4th.

The timing — though Morrison hints that this is just the first change he'd like to see in the program — is appropriate, as recent school shootings have focused the community's attention on youth violence.

"The most dangerous group we have is our youth," said Councilman Joe Brown, expressing his support for the change. "We've got to keep them from being American gangsters."

When it comes to urban issues, it is often said that poverty is the problem; education is the answer. The summer youth program, whatever faults it may have, seeks to answer both these charges, giving students both money and knowledge.

"Gangs are recruiting 14- and 15-year-olds. If you don't show them another option, someone else will," Morrison said. "We're in a battle."

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