Chicago’s newly minted mayor is looking for options to address youth unemployment. Mayor Brandon Johnson has instructed the city’s budget office to find ways to fund youth unemployment and enrichment programs — and according to a new study by UIC’s Great Cities Institute, those jobs are critically needed. The study showed the jobless rate rose from 44% in 2019 to 57% in 2021 for Black people ages 20 to 24. And that’s on top of the 87% of Black residents 16 to 19 years old who were unemployed in 2021 — 20% higher than the national average.
The study also drew connections between the city’s crime rates and low youth unemployment rates.
“There’s been a lot of evaluations of summer youth employment programs and very robust research designs that have tried to get towards causation,” said Matthew Wilson, associate director for economic and workforce development at UIC’s Great Cities Institute. “And they’ve found that when program participants are working and they’re a part of programs that provide their mentors and counseling, that crime actually drops 50%. If they’re not engaged in those types of programs, there actually is no more effect of that program. … So there’s, I think, a very strong correlation. But I think even we can say from these types of research designs that there actually is a cause of having a job and being enrolled in these types of programs and them reducing crime.”
The After School Matters youth enrichment program offers stipends for students ages 14-18 to enroll in programs in a variety of content areas. Chief of strategy and staff Melissa Mister said the programs help ramp teens up into employability.
“Arts, sports, communications, leadership and STEM, and they’re really designed to help young people build skills in those content areas, but also build those transferrable 21st century skills that they’ll need for whatever employment they decide to go after in the future, whatever career opportunities they’re interested in,” Mister said.
National nonprofit COOP Careers, which opened in Chicago in 2021, supports recent college graduates who are unemployed or underemployed.
“Underemployment is basically recent college graduates who are currently employed at a job that maybe don’t require a bachelor’s degree or maybe you have a job that requires a bachelor’s degree but … make less than $50,000,” COOP Careers associate director of recruiting Kadeem Fuller said. “So what we do … is really focus in on the social capital piece as well as digital skills. When you think of digital skills, really upskilling students who are recent college graduates … they’re learning our two curriculum programs at COOP Careers, which is data analytics as well as digital marketing … and really trying to figure out ways in order to enter into the digital economy.”
COOP also helps young adults learn how to develop social capital through networking.
“When I talk to a lot of younger adults, people in our program before they come into our program, the big thing that they have about networking is it feels kind of icky,” Fuller said. “At COOP, we show them that social capital of building a network is not just about asking for a job. It’s really being a servant leader — ‘How can I support you in the work that you’re already doing?’”
While most people will find jobs with private employers at some point in their lives, Wilson said finding ways to get young people ready to work in the private sector begins with the public sector.
“Largely, the labor market has not employed young people at the same rate as older people,” Wilson said. “Younger people just aren’t as competitive when they’re competing for jobs against people that are older than them. So I think it’s really important for … the public sector to step in and train young people. If we think of a 16- and 17-year-old, they’re probably not ready to contribute to the private sector without training. … And I think the money that the state of Illinois is trying to put into youth employment is such a great step in the right direction, in terms of providing young people with skills where they can sort of become engaged with an employer, know how to show up on time, know how to work with co-workers, know how to respond to supervisors. And so I think that the public sector needs to sort of give a push to people that in the labor market right now just aren’t as competitive as older people.”
Mister said she thinks the new administration’s efforts toward increasing youth employment could be transformative for the city.
“We’ve been so encouraged by Mayor Johnson’s dedication and commitment to youth employment and engagement,” Mister said. “It aligns absolutely with After School Matters’ beliefs about making sure that every young person in the city has access to high quality opportunities to explore their interests, to decide what it is they want to do now and in the future, to thrive right now and to thrive in the future so that we’ve been incredibly, incredibly encouraged and we just hope to see all of his goals come to fruition because it will be a win for the city for sure.”