PI Original Ashlee Rezin Thursday January 24th, 2013, 6:37pm

Youth Unemployment Summit Highlights Illinois Teens' Urgent Need For Jobs

Illinois’ teen unemployment rate is among the highest in the country and during a panel on Thursday at the Chicago Urban League, local elected officials came face-to-face with Chicago’s unemployed youth. 

Illinois’ teen unemployment rate is among the highest in the country and during a panel on Thursday at the Chicago Urban League, local elected officials came face-to-face with Chicago’s unemployed youth.

“Not being able to provide for your kid or help your family is an awful feeling, I feel like nothing, but I don’t have opportunities to work,” said Dwillie Bush, 18, during the panel. A senior at Banner Academy South High School in the far South Side neighborhood of Jeffrey Manor, Bush is father to a four-month-old boy and lives with his single mother and four siblings in Englewood.

“Point blank, I need a job,” he said.

In front of a 19-person panel that featured a collection of aldermen, commissioners and legislative representatives, more than 15 teenagers gave testimony to the struggles of unemployment in Chicagoland. Thursday’s panelists were also presented with a recent report explaining how teens, particularly low-income and minority teens, have been excluded from the labor market and the negative economic impact Illinois has seen as a result.

The panel was hosted by the Chicago Urban League, which partnered with the Illinois Council on Re-Enrolling Students Who Dropped Out of School and the Alternative Schools Network.

“As far as the black youth goes, if we had jobs we would be able to say no to the bad stuff,” said Bush. “We could say ‘I got a job, I can say no to the streets now because I have something that’s positive in my life and helping me make money in a positive and legal way.’”

Bush said he’s been looking for a job for more than a year, and filled out applications at places such as Macy’s, McDonalds, Portillo’s and Footlocker. A former intern at the Chicago Urban League and the Urban Health Initiative, he said he’s got a resume put together and can’t understand why he hasn’t been hired. 

“I’ve seen so many kids like me just give up,” he said.

The report, commissioned by the Alternative Schools Network and executed by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, found that 8.7 percent of black teens in Chicago were employed in 2010 and 2011. The rate for Asians was 15.5 percent; 20 percent of Chicago’s Hispanic teens were employed. The employment rate for white teens in the city stood at 21 percent.

The report also found that in low-income households (less than $40,000 annually) only seven to 10 of every 100 black teens were employed in 2010 and 2011.

“We had more than 400 school-age youth shot last year, the numbers are overwhelming — we need to put our kids to work, it’s not that hard,” said Ald. Bob Fioretti (2nd), who sat on the panel at the Chicago Urban League and listened to the teenagers’ testimonies.

Fioretti sponsored a resolution last year to allocate $25 million in TIF funds toward a Summer Youth and Young Adult Employment and Training Program. It didn’t pass in the Chicago City Council, but Fioretti said he plans to reintroduce it by March.

“The stories that I heard today, the disintegration of our society that we heard today, I hear these stories every day in my ward and I try to place young and old people in jobs, but we need to do more— it’s not that hard,” he said.

Along with Fioretti, some of the panelists included Toni Irving, deputy chief of staff for the office of Gov. Pat Quinn, Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd), State Rep. Esther Golar (D-Chicago), Ald. Latasha Thomas (17th), Ald. Walter Burnett (27th), Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court Dorothy Brown, Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), Cook County Commissioner Robert Steele, Cook County Commissioner Eddie Reyes, Ald. Will Burns (4th), State Sen. William Delgado (D-Chicago), State Sen. Mattie Hunter (D-Chicago), State Rep. Lisa Hernandez (D-Cicero) and David Vitale, president of the Chicago Board of Education.

According to the report, low income, minority high school students have the highest rate of youth unemployment.

“Only 7 percent of (low income, minority) high school students in the city of Chicago in 2010 and 2011 were employed,” the report reads. “Early in-school work experience has favorable effects on improving the transition from high school to the labor market upon graduation. National research over the past decade has revealed that the absence of in-school work among low to middle income high school students ins associated with a higher frequency of dropping out of high school among males, a higher incidence of teenaged childbearing among women, and a greater incidence of juvenile delinquency and arrests.”

The teen employment rate in Illinois dropped from just less than 50 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2012, according to the report. The 22 percent drop in Illinois’ teen employment rate is among the 10 highest in the country.

At least one panelist, Ald. Dowell, said the private sector should step up and help the government battle youth joblessness.

“With all of us working together, I think we can start chipping away at this problem,” she said. “The bottom line is, we have to figure out a way, at the state level, to change our tax code so these corporations that are doing business outside of the country will have incentive to bring those jobs back home. We’re outsourcing a lot of opportunity and we’re wasting talent that we have in our own country.”

Dowell said she sees a lot of young people come into her office during the summer looking for work, and programs such as the state’s Neighborhood Recovery Initiative have provided opportunities for youth employment. “But that’s just one program, clearly that’s just a drop in the bucket,” she said.

Michael Herman, 17, an emancipated minor attending Aspira Antonia Pantoja Alternative High School, told the panel he’s been looking for a job since July and has filled out more than 50 applications, but has nothing to show for it.

“I’m trying to be a successful adult but I can’t do that without money in my pocket or a job to support myself,” said Herman, who lives in Calvin Park, and said he is currently depending on friends and family to survive.

“I’m trying to be an independent adult, but the job pickings are slim,” he said. “The problems we are facing right now are economic issues, but if they would just increase employment that would decrease a lot of other problems, so why isn’t anyone taking any action? If you seek to improve, you must seek to employ.”

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