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Leor Galil/MEDILL

Jack Wuest introduces several speakers at the conference on youth employment.

The future of youth employment

by Leor Galil and Ryan Craggs
Jan 26, 2010


Leor Galil/MEDILL

Local teens discuss their lack of job opportunities at the Youth Hearing conference.


Youth employment in Chicago, the state of Illinois and the rest of the U.S. hit unprecedented lows at the end of the last decade, a crisis, experts said, that has ominous long-term ramifications.

The Center for Labor Market Studies at Boston’s Northeastern University released a report Tuesday morning detailing the steep decline in employment rates for 16-24-year-olds.

According to the report, the national teen employment rate fell to 26.2 percent in 2009, while the Illinois teen employment rate dropped 20 percentage points below its 2000 level.

“These are the young people who are going to make up the workforce in the future in this country,” said Jack Wuest, executive director of the Alternative Schools Network, . “If they don’t have jobs now, they don’t know how to work, and if they don’t know how to work, they’re going to be much less effective and productive workers in their adult lives.”

Speaking at the Youth Hearing: Education, Jobs and Justice conference at the Chicago Urban League on Tuesday afternoon, Wuest said the record number of unemployed youths affects everything from the health of the economy to public safety.

 “The rates are so ridiculously low,” Wuest said.  “How much lower can you get? It’s a disaster.”

The report includes a number of recommendations to combat low youth employment. Included is one for an immediate allocation of $1.5 billion federal stimulus money, as well as a long-term recommendation that $15 billion be spent to engage 15-24-year-olds in education and employment programs.

Though youth employment has hit record-setting lows, the state is making an effort to help. The Illinois Department of Employment Security offers such programs as “Hire the Future,” which connects young people with summer jobs and part-time work.

 Greg Rivara, IDES communications manager, said that teenagers and young adults usually overlook opportunities such as internships because most of them are unpaid.

“Internships have a couple of huge benefits,” Rivara said. “It’s an opportunity for an individual to gain exposure to a certain career path. It allows them to see if they want to continue on, or if it’s not exactly what [they] thought it might be.”