THE STORY is depressingly familiar: Many District teenagers, most of them black, will be out of work this summer. Despite the summer-job identification efforts of the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade and the city's Manpower Administration, at this moment, according to Manpower officials, there are about 31,000 jobs available through a variety of privately and publicly sponsored programs for about 45,000 teens seeking work.
Currently the city's unemployment rate among youths is 27 per cent. Among black youths it's 35 per cent. Manpower officials say that, even if economic conditions improve during the next year, about one of four youths seeking jobs will fail. And this "optimistic" forecast doesn't include the uncounted thousands of young people who simply have stopped looking for work.
These young people are caught in the Catch 22 of a tight job market that denies them jobs for lack of previous experience while at the same time shutting them out of the first job that would give them experience. As one frustrated youth, who's been seeking employment since she graduated from high school two years ago, explained it: "Always they want to know what experience I have, but they don't hire me, so where do I get it?"
It's a potentially explosive situation. Blocked from the gainful employment that can make them productive members of society, these young people are being forced onto a path that can lead, at best, to the welfare rolls and, at worst, to prison. Of course, the youth unemployment rate in the District isn't unique. Unemployment among American youth generally is far too high. Among black and Hispanic youths it had reached dire proportions. And the international scope of the problem was underscored recently at the Londaon summit conference. The concluding joint statement from the leaders of the world's major industrial nations proclaimed that creating more jobs for youths in all their countries is a "most urgent" task.
Closer to home, what can be done to improve job prospects for District teenagers? Frankly, there isn't any solution to the problem this summer. And that is all the more reason for Congress to move quickly to pass the Yough Employment Act, now pending, and for the President to sign it. This, at least, may offer some relief in the future. The bill provides $250 million to establish an 18-month pilot project in communities across the country that would guarantee jobs to youths currently in school or dropouts seeking to return to school.The jobs wouldn't be merely make-work, but positions that offer the chance of acquiring marketable skills. The District would be eligible to receive about $5 million under this program, which could be ready to start by summer's end. Other efforts that must be made, but whose prospects are now nebulous, include: increasing the jobs available through the city's federally funded Manpower youth summer program (the figure currently is about 20,000) and improving the ability of school system's career-education program to gain summer jobs for its students. None of this will be easy during the current period of fiscal austerity, but the effort must be made. The problem of youth unemployment isn't going to go away.