Opinion

Editorial

The Power of Summer Jobs

Rupert Daniel will tell anyone who will listen — and he’s committed a good deal of time and energy to the task of compelling people to listen — that a few summer jobs changed his life.
Relating the story (see page 6), he said that he was in trouble early and often in his youth, and was certainly headed in the wrong direction, when he landed a summer job through a federally funded program back in the ’70s. He acknowledged that his primary mission was to make a little walking-around money, but he came away with much more.
As he told BusinessWest, in the course of working at a few parks in Springfield, he came into contact with individuals who gave him something to think about — or something else, as the case may be. These were college students or people who had used their college educations to earn good-paying and highly rewarding jobs. Rupert said he soon realized that he had a choice to make: stay on the course he was on (the one that landed him in trouble and a series of foster homes) or attempt to emulate the successful people he met during the summer.
He chose the latter, and eventually embarked on a career that would include tours of duty as a Green Beret and work with the Springfield Police Department, which he now serves as a lieutenant.
Not everyone who lands a summer job would describe the experience as life-changing, certainly, but most would describe it as a positive development, from which they gained much more than a small paycheck. They would say they also learned lessons in responsibility, teamwork, communication, accountability, and how to function in the workplace — be it at an office, a Friendly’s restaurant, a tobacco field, or Riverside Park (now Six Flags).
And this is why the summer jobs program conducted by the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, and others like it, are so important. Publicly and privately funded (more the former than the latter), these programs provide opportunities to people who might not otherwise be able to experience what Rupert and countless others have over the years.
That’s the good news. The bad news, as related by the REB’s long-time director, Bill Ward, is that, for every 1,000 people who land a job through his program (and that’s the annual goal), probably twice that many are left on the outside looking in, and missing out on an experience that could shape a life in the way that Rupert’s was.
This statistical dilemma is verified in a report conducted recently by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University. It revealed that roughly half as many teens ages 16-19 (27%) in this state were employed during an average month in 2012 as there were in 1999 — and there is little to suggest that improvement is in the offing.
And if things don’t improve, thousands of young people will suffer the consequences, and so will the region as a whole.
Indeed, today’s teens are tomorrow’s workforce, and the quality of that workforce will go a long way toward determining future growth and economic vibrancy in cities like Springfield, Holyoke, Chicopee, and Westfield.
The state’s elected leaders, and especially Gov. Deval Patrick, have stepped up to the plate on the summer jobs issue, pumping $10 million annually into the YouthWorks initiative, and federal funding has also been steady. These efforts must continue and expand, and area employers must pitch in as well to help increase the number of young people who can earn a paycheck in the summers to come.
Such jobs are not necessarily going to change a life — although one did for Rupert Daniel — but they will help change the equation for generations of young people and the Pioneer Valley as a whole.

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