Chicago tackles youth unemployment as it wrestles with its consequences

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz 


Tackling the problem of youth unemployment

The Manufacturing Careers Internship Program is one of several efforts aimed at reducing unemployment among young people, training them for careers in the manufacturing industry. (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)


Margo Strotter, who runs a busy sandwich shop in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, makes it a point to hire people with "blemishes."

But young people? She sighs and shakes her head.

They often lack "the fundamental stuff" — arriving on time, ironing their shirts, communicating well, taking direction — she said. She doesn't have time to train workers in the basics, and worries she's not alone.

"We are going to wind up with a whole group of people in their 40s and 50s who can't function," said Strotter, owner of Ain't She Sweet Cafe.

As Chicago tackles what some have termed a crisis of youth joblessness, it must reckon with the consequences of a failure to invest in its low-income neighborhoods and the people who live there. There aren't enough jobs, and the young people vying for them are frequently woefully unprepared because of gaps in their schooling and upbringing. The system has pushed them to the back of the hiring line.The problem is not new, but it has taken on renewed urgency as violence surges in some of the city's neighborhoods, often claiming people — as victims and perpetrators — in their teen and young adult years. From the start of the year through most of July, 15- to 24-year-olds accounted for 55 percent of the city's shooting victims and 59 percent of arrests related to shootings, according to police statistics.

"The two trends are tragically intertwined, where youth unemployment contributes to the incidence of violence, and violence in our communities contributes to many barriers to employment, both because of the violence itself and because of the criminal justice system's response to that violence," said Matt Bruce, executive director of the Chicagoland Workforce Funder Alliance.

Arrests even without convictions can leave a paper trail that turns off employers, and a recent report found that less than 1 percent of juvenile arrest records in Cook County get expunged.

Some data suggest youth unemployment could be worsening, even in neighborhoods like Bronzeville that are seeing new life and new jobs.

Between 2009 and 2014, when much of the country was recovering from the Great Recession, the employment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds fell by double digits in Bronzeville and several other neighborhoods mostly on the city's South and West sides, according to data analyzed for the Tribune by the University of Illinois at Chicago's Great Cities Institute.

The employment rate, which is the share of the population that is working (not counting those who are imprisoned or institutionalized), is often considered a better measure of the labor market than the unemployment rate, which only counts jobless people who are looking for work and not those who have given up.

The city as a whole saw its young adult employment rate rise slightly to 58.2 percent during that five-year period.

But, with some exceptions, the disparities between neighborhoods grew more pronounced.

For example, in Englewood, often the poster child for inner-city challenges, the employment rate among 20- to 24-year-olds fell to 28 percent, from 39 percent, over those five years. In Lincoln Park, often the poster child of tony North Side life, it grew to 77 percent from 70 percent. (The overall U.S. employment rate for the over-16 population in July was nearly 60 percent.)

Evelyn Diaz, president of the Heartland Alliance, an anti-poverty organization, said the patterns are an unsurprising result of years of diminishing resources for the poor, the unemployed, the homeless, the mentally ill and ex-offenders who spill back into Chicago's neighborhoods after serving their time and then have a hard time finding work.

Nearly 45,000 20- to 24-year-olds were both out of school and out of work in Chicago in 2014, a group termed "disconnected" or "opportunity" youth, according to Great Cities. The number grows to nearly 150,000 if you count disconnected 16- to 24-year-olds in the whole Chicago metro area.

Though myriad well-meaning programs chip away at the problem, what's missing, some workforce experts say, is a large-scale system that connects young people, training programs, employers and transportation that gets everyone where they need to be.

"Where we see the void is the intermediary role, the connector that connects all those things," said Victor Dickson, CEO of the Safer Foundation, which helps put ex-offenders back to work.

Part of the problem stems from neglect of low-income neighborhoods that have struggled since manufacturing jobs left town nearly half a century ago.

When there are few jobs nearby, and you can't afford to live in or get to the parts of town where business is thriving, it perpetuates a cycle of limited opportunity, said Stephanie Bechteler, research and evaluation director at the Chicago Urban League.

Training programs aim to put unemployed youth on right track

Population declines as people move away from blighted neighborhoods also tend to leave the poorest and hardest to employ behind, weakening the informal neighborly networks that help young people land their first jobs.

But even in neighborhoods reinvigorated by new economic investment, the fallout from human disinvestment can cast a shadow on progress.

Take historic Pullman on the Far South Side, once a steel industry hub.

The neighborhood has added nearly 1,000 new jobs in the past three years, thanks to the new Method soap factory, a new Wal-Mart Supercenter and retail strip and an incoming Whole Foods distribution center expected to open by end of 2017, said David Doig, president of Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, the nonprofit developer behind the projects. Another retail center under development, which will include Chipotle and Potbelly's restaurants, should add another 30 to 40 jobs, he said.

Sixty percent of the jobs have gone to people living within nearby ZIP codes, including many to young people, Doig said. He expects updated youth employment numbers to look much better than the 20 percent drop recorded in the Great Cities report.

To bring jobs into the communities, "we've got to work better at changing perceptions," Doig said, which includes getting employers to see the area's assets, such as its proximity to major railroads.

But creating jobs is not enough. Some 3,000 people showed up on the first day Wal-Mart opened a recruitment office to hire workers for the new Pullman store, but a lot of those people, particularly young people, didn't have the verbal or math skills to be competitive, Doig said.

"Our education system hasn't done a real good job in training people in those basic proficiencies," he said.

Others, Doig said, didn't pass drug tests, or had felony convictions that kept them from applying and getting hired (at the time Illinois had not yet adopted a ban-the-box law banning the question from applications).

Andre Kellum, executive director of 741 Collaborative Partnership, a consortium of workforce development partners that help get people into the new jobs coming to the mid-South Side area, said young people in low-income communities face a battery of barriers that make landing a job "like trying to go across Lake Michigan."

Some he encounters lack basic communication skills and work ethic — the result of a confluence of factors including shoddy education, absent parents, emotional trauma from growing up around violence, and a dearth of role models of working people except the drug dealers on the corners, he said.


Young men walk after school under a Metra viaduct at 113th Street in Chicago's Pullman neighborhood in 2014. As violence has surged in some of the city's neighborhoods, the issue of youth joblessness has taken on renewed urgency.

(Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

For others, just traveling to a job is a land mine in a city where fractured gangs rule a block at a time, he said.

Demonte Bailey, 20, said he stopped showing up at a manufacturing internship he enjoyed because he had to take two buses and walk in the dark to get there from his "rough" neighborhood in Chatham, and his mother was worried sick.

"Getting back and forth was a job," said Bailey, who now works as a security guard at a downtown building and is attending culinary school. Bailey is the older brother of Demario Bailey, who in 2014 was fatally shot during a robbery while walking with his twin brother, Demacio, under a viaduct near their high school.

Adding to the challenges, inexperienced teens and young adults compete with older people who still struggle to find work since they lost their jobs in the recession, Kellum said. With big employers using computerized assessment tools to screen for certain personalities and work histories, young people who don't know to put the right keywords in never get a glance, he said.

Adrienne Agnew, 24, said she didn't understand why her job applications were unanswered until she enrolled in a workforce development program at New Moms, a nonprofit that serves young mothers at risk of homelessness.

"Now I see why I didn't get hired," said Agnew, who lives in Harvey and has a 3-year-old daughter, a 1-year-old son and a new baby boy. "I didn't pronounce some words right, I didn't spell right, I definitely didn't know how to do a resume."

Agnew noticed a New Moms poster on the bulletin board at her health clinic, which stood out from the other youth programs she had encountered because the 12-week job training program included a paid internship that would help cover the diapers and formula that make up most of her expenses.

New Moms, which serves young mothers 18 to 24, operates a social enterprise called Bright Endeavors that makes soy candles that are sold in many Whole Foods and boutique stores. It also has a fast-growing votive candle rental business popular among event venues that don't want to throw the glass containers away.

Bright Endeavors this year will employ 70 young moms as interns who get paid $10 an hour to pour and package the candles, said New Moms President and CEO Laura Zumdahl. With a recent infusion of federal social innovation funding, it expects to expand to 120 interns annually in five years.

Agnew, who had to travel two to three hours each way by bus and train to get to Bright Endeavors in Austin, said that at first she went to the candle-making program for the pay, "but then it felt good." During the classroom training, she learned to correct her posture, stop playing with her hair, make eye contact, make digital slideshow presentations, improve her vocabulary and dress properly for professional settings. It gave her confidence.

"In school they don't teach you that," Agnew said. "They definitely won't give you a mock interview. They don't care like New Moms do."

Agnew, who is close to completing her GED, estimates she submitted more than 30 job applications this year, mostly to retailers, before finally landing a job in August as a cashier at Soldier Field. She was ecstatic, as it would help her move out of her mother's house, though she still faces a daily struggle of finding child care as she juggles her schedule with that of family members and her boyfriend, who works long hours through a temp agency.

Adrienne Agnew

Adrienne Agnew stops May 27, 2016, outside a public aid office on the South Side of Chicago with her partner Anthony Alexander and children, Haley Morales and Anthony Alexander Jr. Agnew worked a paid internship at Bright Endeavors, a social enterprise that makes soy candles and offers job training. She gave birth to her third child in June and landed a job in August as a cashier at Soldier Field.

 (Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)

Yet making youth better job candidates also isn't the sole answer. An even greater need, some workforce experts say, is to improve the caliber of the jobs.

Low-wage jobs have grown fast since the recession while mid-wage jobs declined, as employers who downsized learned to make do without those positions.

As more jobs become part-time and temporary, they also offer little stability and little motivation to stay on.

"We can't train ourselves out of that problem," said Bruce, of the Workforce Funders Alliance.

Some high-profile initiatives have emerged recently to try to combat youth unemployment at a larger scale.

Former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, funded by Laurene Powell Jobs' philanthropic Emerson Collective, is assembling a Chicago team to help get disconnected youth into jobs employers need filled.

Former Fenger High School principal Liz Dozier is heading up a new philanthropic venture called Chicago Beyond to invest in innovative and expandable programs already doing good work.

Starbucks, with its 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, and JP Morgan Chase, with its $75 million New Skills For Youth, also are calling attention to the issue.

Funders are starting to support nonprofits to address youth employment and some adult programs will need to be modified with first-time job seekers in mind, said Marie Trzupek Lynch, president and CEO of Skills for Chicagoland's Future, a private-public partnership. Of the 1,000 job seekers Skills placed into jobs last year, 300 were youth, and the organization is trying to grow that to 400 this year, Lynch said.

What's important to remember, Lynch said, is that while some youth lack the basics, others are job-ready and just need help getting their resumes to the top of the pile.

Marie Trzupek Lynch

Marie Trzupek Lynch, president and CEO of Skills for Chicagoland's Future, placed 1,000 job seekers, including 300 young people, into jobs last year. She says that while some youth lack basic skills, others are job-ready.

 (Patrick L. Pyszka photo)

The Cara Program, a nonprofit that helps people with employment barriers like homelessness and criminal backgrounds get back to work, is trying to do a better job of reaching young people, who are less likely to seek its services, said Chief Program Officer Robert White.

To engage younger people, Cara is starting to recruit through libraries and schools and is piloting a series of workshops at its Bronzeville campus so people can get services without joining the formal four-week program.

Jesse Teverbaugh, director of student and alumni affairs at Cara, said reaching young people is far more difficult than the middle-aged, who typically have endured a lot of suffering and are ready to make changes.

"They're still running around with their youth and thinking they're all that and a bag of chips," Teverbaugh said. "It's really hard for them to grasp that if you don't get this now, you will become a professional programgoer, going from program to program."

Marquez Jefferson, 27, wishes he had found Cara earlier in his life, or at least a mentor who could have set him on a straighter path.

He and his two siblings were raised by his grandmother, but even though she did the best she could, his block in the Austin neighborhood, a known drug spot, sucked him in.

Jefferson, who said he has four felony convictions for drug possession, said he was 17 the first time he got locked up. His grandmother died during one of his stints in prison, and his brother was killed during another for trying to sell marijuana on a block that sat within a different gang's territory.

That slowed him down. A doctor at a health clinic where he got regular checkups upon his last release from prison told him that, if he was ready, she knew of a good program.

"I said, 'I'm tired,'" Jefferson said. "I was tired of always having to turn and look for the police. I don't want to live like this." He also was a new father to his first son and didn't want him following in his footsteps.

Jefferson would go to Cara in a suit and tie — the program requires it, and has a room full of donated professional attire for people to choose from. When he'd walk by his friends still hanging out on the corner, he said, some cheered him on.

Since starting the program in March, Jefferson said he feels part of a community that "really cares," and he doesn't want to let them down. After working at Cara's transitional Cleanslate program, picking up litter, Jefferson in June landed a job as a warehouse associate at the Rebuilding Exchange, which sells reclaimed building materials.

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