Work, Earn, and Learn

Stimulus Money Gives a Real Boost to Summer Jobs Programs

Michael Chechette and Kathryn Kirby

Michael Chechette and Kathryn Kirby say federal stimulus money will greatly increase the number of area young people able to secure summer jobs.v

Unemployment levels may still be at the highest levels in decades here in the Bay State, but this summer presents a golden employment opportunity for area youth.

Two programs, both getting a huge boost from federal stimulus money, are targeting lower-income and at-risk youths from Hampden County. The days of summer days leaning on a broom, however, are gone. With an infusion of federal funds, Hampden County youths have additional opportunities to find jobs that aren’t just roles for a warm body. Rather, there is an additional focus on education, social programs, and the possibility that the summer job might turn into a career.

And while the two programs have big aspirations this summer, their foundations go back as far as a decade. The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 was a broad-based employment initiative with assistance on many levels. Within that bill has always been a component focused on summer jobs for youths. In Hampden County, those finding employment through that program have numbered around 200 annually.

WIA is a high-support, high-intensity program. Youths that qualify for it have tremendous mechanisms in place to support them, whether it’s training to assist them in getting their GED or staying in school to help through the MCAS tests.

This year, big stimulus money jump-starts the WIA Summer Jobs Program by adding an additional $1.4 million to an annual budget for a summer program that hovered around $200,000, said Michael Chechette, manager of Youth Programs for the REB. He pointed proudly to what difference the stimulus money has made.

“Because of the president’s summer jobs initiative in the stimulus, we here in Hampden County have come into a substantial dollar amount. With our WIA year-round program and our stimulus jobs program, we are in a position right now to place around 1,100 kids in both programs.”

But it doesn’t stop there.

Kathryn Kirby, youth-employment coordinator for the REB and one of the managers of another state funded program, called the YouthWorks Summer Jobs Program, said the YSJP initiative plans to place 472 youths in meaningful jobs for the next three months.

Unlike the WIA program, which is open to youths from across Hampden County, the YSJP specifically targets the cities of Springfield, Chicopee, and Holyoke, she said.

In this issue, BusinessWest looks at the bright prospects for youths and summer jobs, and what the programs mean for the bigger picture of economic development in the region.

Work in Progress

From Palmer all the way west to Blandford, the WIA summer jobs program begins on July 6. The needs-based aspect of this initiative requires that applicants be at 70% of the poverty level. The ages range from 14 to 21 for the regular WIA SJP, while the federal-stimulus side of the WIA SJP stretches that up to age 24, also placing a prioritized requirement to hire veterans and children in foster care.

In Hampden County, the REB was chosen as the existing structure utilized to streamline the pipeline of stimulus funds. “The REB literally approves every work site,” said Chechette. “We are the fiscal and administrative entity above all else. The WIA stimulus is massive. It’s just a great volume of people. In order to place 1,600 kids in the WIA SJP, we will probably put out 4,000 applications, and we will interview about 2,200 youth.

“On the stimulus side of the SJP,” he added, “we have to have hundreds and hundreds of work sites, meaningful work sites. There has to be due diligence; we have to make sure that child labor laws are addressed … there are just a lot of details in this.”

From the REB, the next link in the chain is a series of what are referred to as ‘vendors,’ in this case the entities to get youths into the jobs. For the WIA SJP, the vendors are the Holyoke Public School Department, the Mass. Career Development Institute, New England Farm Workers’ Council, New North Citizens Council, Pathfinder Vocational High School, and the YWCA of Western Mass. YouthWorks’ vendors are the MCDI for Springfield, the Valley Opportunity Council in Chicopee, and the city of Holyoke, which will handle all employment there.

“All roads start here and end here,” Chechette explained, “and we’re the ones that make sure all the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed.” He explained what is keeping everyone in the REB offices busy these days.

“The way it works is that the kids go in for an academic piece in the morning, maybe for an hour or two, and then they would transition for a few hours into the field on the job. The total funding going to those contractors is $1.4 million; that’s on the stimulus side. We have an additional $200,000 roughly going to what we call support services. To help with transportation, we will pay for van transport, and for the very first time, bus passes through PVTA are going to be supplied.

“Transportation is a big issue,” he continued. “The bus pass costs $45 a month, and with the president’s initiative, they want us to be very aggressive getting the money into the kids’ hands. We will be giving a bus pass to every one of them coming through our program. We want to get that money that they will be earning out into the markets, to give them the means to disseminate that back into the economy … for shopping, for their parents, but we want them to be able to travel and get out there, too.”

Kirby was quick to address that these jobs have substance, and are ideally going to address longer-term impact for the youths.

“This year under the YouthWorks program, there are a few priorities that the vendors are looking at and focusing on,” she said. “A lot of the employers will be working with the Massachusetts Work-Based Learning Plan, which is an excellent evaluation tool. After two weeks into the job, the youth is evaluated. At the end of the job, they are evaluated again on all their skill sets.”

The program will involve dozens of area companies, from larger employers such as Big Y Foods, MassMutual, and Baystate Medical Center down to small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. The common denominator is providing young people with not just a paycheck, but real learning experiences, exposure to the world of work, and, in some cases, a good start down a career path.

To illustrate such tangibles and intangibles, Kirby pointed to the efforts of one employer and long-time participant in summer-jobs initiatives.

“A nice example of substantial jobs is the contribution I’m working on with George Gomez,” she explained. “He is the president and owner of nine McDonald’s in Massachusetts and Connecticut, and he is going to hire 20 youths through the YSJP. Then, at the end of the program, he will hire on the youths during the school year.”

Chechette was quick to point out that these are not just run-of-the-mill employment opportunities. “Just to clarify, these are for management positions; this is not bringing kids in to work the counter. He wants to cultivate the youth at a higher level, that maybe they can look at this as a career path.

“This is kind of new for us, that we are also very aggressively pursuing the private sector,” he continued. “Historically, because we are federally funded, we would stay away from the for-profit entities. This year, we will pay for the youth to work in the for-profit companies, but they will provide the kids with the supervision, obviously. However, what we are looking for come September is that, because we extended that courtesy of providing them with the paid-for employment, they might look to hire those kids for after-school employment, or they might offer older youths the opportunity to work with them in a full-time job.”

Kirby added, “in addition to the private sector, we have a number of community-based organizations that have opened their doors, particularly this summer with the stimulus money. It’s a win-win situation for the youth, the employers, and the community.”

For the 472 youths that are guaranteed placements through the YouthWorks program, she said, “we’re confident that we can not only meet that goal, but surpass it. Many of the vendors are very creative with their dollars. For instance, they’ll say to an employer, ‘if we give you two youths, can you hire an additional one or two?’ In that way, we can get more bang for our buck. All the vendors are on board with that kind of creative leadership, trying to expand the opportunity.”

The Job at Hand

Late last month, Gov. Patrick announced further spending to secure youth-based summer job programs. In a press release from Beacon Hill, he said he plans to commit more than $30 million over the next two years to create more than 10,000 jobs across the state.

“Summer jobs keep young people engaged in something constructive and safe,” said Patrick. “Thanks to this innovative combination of state and federal recovery funds, we can give more kids than ever a chance to work, earn, and learn this summer.”

Congressman John Olver expressed similar sentiments. “Providing our young people with the opportunity to earn money while gaining work experience, skills-oriented training, and career exposure is a smart investment,” he said. “In this struggling economy, jobs are hard to come by for everyone, including young adults. We cannot afford to have an entire generation missing out on the many lessons learned from a summer job. Our economy’s health in the future depends on investing in programs like this today.”

In Springfield, Chechette and Kirby are glad to see the usual high-minded talk from elected officials become reality.

“I’m really happy that Hampden County got this extra money,” Kirby said. “The two programs complement each other very well, in taking care of all the kids that have this need. If one isn’t a fit for them, the other is another great opportunity to get them a good summer job with some real opportunities for the future.”

Chechette agreed. “I’m excited about this, and I think the dividends are going to be huge. The kids will have good structured time, and ultimately, they will have a place to go. I’ve been doing this for a long time now, and this is a good chance for them to move forward.”

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