African American Teen Unemployment: A Growing Problem

By Cristina Quinn

Mar. 2, 2012

Imani Rice
Imani Rice, 16, found a job at the Dorchester Bay Youth Force, but many of her peers are still looking. (Cristina Quinn/WGBH)

BRAINTREE, Mass. — It's school vacation week, and at South Shore Plaza in Braintree, teens are everywhere. But contrary to what you might think, they're not all just hanging out. Some are looking for a job — with no success.

“I’ve been trying for like two years. I got one interview, that was it. No one will take a teenager,” one teen said.

Another said, "I've been applying at Shaw's, PriceRite, Burger King, McDonalds, but I’m not getting any reply from them. I’ve been going like every single day to check up and all that."

And a third: “I’ve been looking for a few months now. Basically anywhere, like anywhere that’s hiring, I go in. I talk to the managers. But still no job.”

Teens between the ages of 16 and 19 are in a jobs depression. Add race to the mix, and it’s nothing short of an epidemic. And it has long-term ramifications: Lack of work experience in the teen years reduces future employability and earnings.

Upstairs in the food court, Ashley Registre of Randolph sat at a table with her friend Amber. Registre was filling out a job application for a retail clothing store in the mall. It's not her first job application. She listed them off: "Hollister, Abercrombie, Aéropostale, PS Aéropostale, Baby Gap, Children’s Place. Dunkin' Donuts, McDonalds, Stop & Shop … there’s more."

The scope of the problem

Registre is one of many black teenagers looking for work. While the national teen unemployment rate overall is at 24 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the jobless rate for black teens is at 42 percent. Economist Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University, said even that figure may be coming up short.

unemployment data

"A lot of the household surveys that are done when the child isn’t working are with the mother rather than with the child. And what we find when we compare those answers is that there’s a lot more kids that want to work than their moms will admit," Sum said. "So the unemployment rate, as bad as it is, is substantially underestimated, particularly for low-income minority kids." 

> > READ: The center's report on summer jobs for teens in 2011 (pdf)

Income plays a major role in the results. The statistics show that if parents make good money, their teenage kids have a better shot at working part-time. But if teens are part of families making less than $20,000, finding a job is an agonizing long shot.



- Economist Andrew Sum: Counting money at his church
- Bill Walczak of Carney Hospital: mason, lifeguard, paper delivery boy, Santa

What was your first job? How did you get it? Comment on this story or tweet @wgbhnews

Only 6 to 7 percent of low-income black and Hispanic high school students work, Sum said. "And if you’re a high-income white high school student, 33 out of 100 work." Why is that? "Part of it is because low-income youths are often living in neighborhoods where there’s not a good job network."

Hiring who you know

Networking is the magic word here, and when it comes to finding a job, sometimes it all comes down to who you know. Maybe you got your first part-time job through your parents, a family friend or a neighbor. But when a teen doesn’t have those connections, he or she is left with the three markets that historically employ teens: food service, retail, and the arts entertainment industry (e.g., movie theaters).

Back at the mall, Ashley and Amber wondered aloud if they haven't been getting hired because they’re black.

"Most of my white friends or mixed friends, they all have jobs, and us—we don’t have jobs. Every store I’ve been in, I hardly ever see a black person," said Amber, who asked that we not use her last name. She didn't think it was because of racism. "I mean, I know there’s racism out there. But I think it’s more like they have the look for it to represent our store. And their personality could be awful, but they have 'the look.'"

It may not be overt racism when it comes to the hiring practices of businesses, but Sum said people are more inclined to hire people with whom they’re most familiar. So if the hiring manager at a clothing store or supermarket doesn’t know you or your neighborhood, it’s possible that that person may hire someone from his town or someone whom he identifies with more.

"When you get people in personnel and HR who know the community, what you find is they are much more likely to recruit and hire kids from the community," he said. "When they lack that connection to the community, what you find is they tend not to recruit from the inner city. So it’s not direct, but it has the effect of excluding you from consideration."

When a teenager doesn’t have a network to begin with and is excluded for reasons that lie in the subconscious of a potential employer, what’s left? Where does that teen go?

A coalition for jobs

Imani Rice is a junior at John D. O’Bryant High School in Roxbury. For the past year, she’s been spending her afternoons working at Dorchester Bay Youth Force in Upham’s Corner. The Youth Force is a leading member of the statewide Youth Jobs Coalition, which helps teens find jobs. "Right now, we’re targeting the private sector. We’re targeting places like hospitals, banks, private industries," she said.

At 16 years old, Rice is more poised than most kids her age. She credited her job as a community organizer for her self-confidence.

"Last year, when I wasn’t doing anything, I was, like, more lazy. This job helped me with my presentation skills. It just made me a better leader. So now I use the skills I learned here in my school. I went from like — let’s not even talk about that" — she said, laughing — "but I went from bad to honor roll. And I'm maintaining honor roll."

The Youth Jobs Coalition serves as a broker for teens who have no network when seeking out a job. Staff members reach out to businesses that don’t typically hire high school kids.

Boston Neighborhood Network, Feb. 24, 2012: Teens Rally for Summer Job Support

Progress, eight jobs at a time

The coalition recently convinced a Dorchester hospital to take on teenagers. Rice and other kids from the Youth Force presented their case to Carney Hospital president Bill Walczak as to why he should hire teens this summer.

"We asked him if he’d commit to eight jobs, and he did, which is really great," Rice said, snapping her fingers. "It’s a win."

Walczak also thinks it’s a win.

"The health care system is 18 percent of the jobs in Boston. We need to grow the next generation of employees. And the way to do that is to introduce them as early as possible to opportunities, so they can learn how to be good workers," he said.

As for keeping the teen employees after the summer, Walczak was open to the idea. However, he said, "We’ll have to see what happens within the health care system. As you know, there are lots of cuts that are going down, especially for safety-net institutions like the Carney Hospital, so we have to evaluate what we can do."

In the meantime, Rice said: Keep looking.

"Just keep an extra eye out," she said. "There are flyers out there that you may not pay attention to. Ask a friend, ask a teacher, ask a guidance counselor. Even ask a librarian. Because there are great programs out there like this one that will help you."

Rice herself might be proof of the possibilities.  As she said, "Don’t settle for the retail and the Stop & Shop and the movie theater jobs when you can have a great job like this one!"

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