This week in Washington, we got our first taste of snow and sub-freezing temperatures of the New Year. As a California native, I admit my thoughts instinctively turned to the summer. I can’t help it. It’s in my DNA.
But I’m in good company because President Obama has been thinking about the summer, too. He started planning last fall to create summer job opportunities for America’s youth in 2012.
Today, I joined the President at the White House to issue a call to action to American businesses, nonprofits and government entities to put our young people to work this summer. In the first two years of this administration, we saw the benefits of a society that is willing to invest in its youth. More than 367,000 young people found summer work opportunities in 2009 and 2010 because of the Recovery Act.
When those Recovery Act dollars dried up last year, I made summer youth jobs a top priority at the Department of Labor. I personally traveled to communities across the country and challenged employers to make a commitment. A number of major corporations — like Jamba Juice, UPS and Wells Fargo — signed on. They created thousands of summer work opportunities for our youth. Major nonprofits like We Are Golf helped tee up 2,700 summer jobs at municipal golf courses and golf clubs across the country as well. And the U.S. Conference of Mayors got involved and worked with their local business leaders to secure commitments. Together, we opened up 80,000 summer job opportunities for America’s youth.
I know how important this is, because I’m a product of summer youth jobs. My parents were first-generation Latino immigrants. I had six siblings. My family didn’t have a lot of money. My friends’ families didn’t have a lot of money. So to get ahead, we had to work twice as hard. And to find a summer job, we sometimes had to look twice as hard.
In my teens, I worked as a recreational aide in my community supervising and mentoring youth in various educational programs. I even delivered free lunch meals to eligible students. I also spent a summer working in a library, stacking and cataloging books and helping my classmates select books to read. Even today, you can ask me anything about the Dewey Decimal System… and I bet I’ll know the answer. Let me tell you: There’s no substitute for the real world experience of showing up for work. And there’s no replacement for the dignity that comes with earning your first paycheck.
Currently, our national youth unemployment rate stands at 16 percent for youth ages 16 to 24. Minority youth have had an especially difficult time finding summer employment. Last July, the unemployment rate for African-American youth was 31 percent, meaning nearly 900,000 African-American youth were unemployed. Latino youth unemployment was 20 percent, meaning 820,000 Latino youth were unemployed.
These jobs aren’t just important for young people. In these tough economic times, many young people share their earnings with their families to help them make ends meet.
Summer jobs for youth are good for business, too. I’ve heard from countless employers about the value they’ve found in hiring young summer workers. It creates lasting personal connections that build loyalty and add value to a company. It helps companies build a pipeline of highly qualified local talent. And it promotes a “grow your own” strategy that’s effective for businesses of all sizes.
Fortunately, this message is spreading. It’s only the first week in January, and we’ve already secured commitments for more than 180,000 summer work opportunities for America’s youth. This includes paid positions, internships, mentoring relationships and job shadowing programs. Our goal is to reach 250,000 employment opportunities by the summer.
We’ll be launching a Summer Jobs Plus Bank within the next 60 days. This one-stop online search tool is being built with help from Google, AfterCollege, LinkedIn and Internships.com. It will allow young people to access opportunities in their local communities.
I’m so excited about the potential here and the progress we’ve already made. I’m excited about success stories like 22-year-old Alexander Forbes. He’s a young man with cerebral palsy who interned at Prudential Insurance in New Jersey the last two summers. He turned his summer work experience into a full-time job analyzing financial data to ensure his company complies with the Sarbanes-Oxley act. Now he’s working toward his ultimate career goal as a cyber security expert.
I’m excited about young people like Tiana Butler from Philadelphia. She interned at the Cancer Treatment Center for America last summer. Her summer internship inspired her to pursue a career as an occupational therapist to help people recover from illness and injury. Tiana is now in her first year at Penn State University pursuing that dream.
So I hope private companies, nonprofits, and government agencies will rise to the challenge. For those leaders reading this who are in a position to make a difference, I’m challenging you to create and publicize job opportunities for low-income young people. Summer jobs teach them about career options, provide them with the skills they need to compete and win, and inspire them to seek the education necessary to achieve their long-term career goals.
I’m also asking America’s young people to make a commitment. If you’re a young person, start thinking about this summer now while it’s still chilly outside. A summer job can be an important starting point to a productive and fulfilling career. It can help you discover what you want to be. Make a commitment to do your job to the best of your abilities and do your family, your country and yourself proud.
To learn more about this initiative, click here. Hilda Solis, U.S. Secretary of Labor
Follow Sec. Hilda Solis on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HildaSolisDOL