TOPICS > Education

After-School Jobs Spark Academic Success

BY Mike Fritz  December 27, 2012 at 5:08 PM EDT

Students work at Brigham and Women's Hosptial in Boston / Photo by Mike Fritz

BOSTON — A job can provide teenagers with an exciting glimpse of economic freedom, bringing with it a new set of responsibilities and money — often for the first time — that hasn’t been begged or borrowed from family members.

But education experts say part-time and after-school jobs play a far more pivotal role in the lives of young people: employment helps students stay on the path toward graduation.

In recent years it’s been an uphill battle for teenagers to get businesses to hire them, however, especially as older and more qualified applicants were laid off and began entering sectors of the economy previously dominated by younger generations.

A report released this month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that “youth employment is at its lowest level since World War II” and that only 25 percent of teenagers are working, compared to 46 percent in 2000.

The report also finds that “overall, 6.5 million people ages 16 to 24 are both out-of-school and out-of-work, statistics that suggest dire consequences for financial stability and employment prospects in that population.”

One city aiming to reverse that trend is Boston, where Mayor Thomas Menino has laid out an ambitious goal to get more employers to hire out-of-work teenagers and students.

“People often will talk about that [first] job that made a difference in their lives,” said Neil Sullivan, the executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, which oversees the initiative. ”But as a society we’ve been slow to recognize that doesn’t happen naturally anymore.” 

Sullivan’s organization connects more than 3,000 Boston high school students every year with roughly 300 businesses throughout the city, employers that include Fenway Park, Harvard University and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Professionals from the Private Industry Council — known in Boston as the PIC — are placed inside high schools and provide students with advice on resumes, cover letters and even what to wear to an interview.

On a recent day at Boston Latin Academy, a prestigious public exam school located in the city’s Dorchester neighborhood, the PIC’s Terry Aline was busy making calls to local employers.  

“Hopefully, you’ll be hearing from them soon in terms of employment,” Aline told a senior who was hoping to land a part-time job at retailer T.J. Maxx.

Aline says that companies around Boston enjoy having students screened by the PIC before their applications arrive.

It’s a “stamp of approval” that helps employers know they are dealing with someone they’d want to hire, Aline said.   

If a student gets a job they are often paired with a mentor at the participating business and given daily tasks that grow from menial to meaningful.

The goal is to get students to develop habits necessary to be successful in life and understand the link between education and the workplace.

“It’s an economic imperative because we are not employing young people in this country,” Sullivan said, “they are not imagining the careers that motivate them to complete their education and this gets the job done.”

Boston Latin Academy headmaster Emelia Pastor says that the citywide effort has worked at her 7-12 grade school with a student body of roughly 1,700. She says that it’s been instrumental in teaching kids the importance of showing up on time and learning to work well with others.

“When students get these opportunities,” Pastor said, “it really shows them that the skills they’ve been learning in school are useful and important.”

According to the Boston Private Industry Council, the push has helped increase high school graduation rates in the city by 11 percent in the last five years.

A version of this report will appear on Monday’s NewsHour.

American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to the dropout crisis.