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The summer job is a rite of passage for many teens and younger adults. Because of the pandemic, however, traditional roles such as camp counselor, lifeguard and waiter, are scarce. But as John Yang reports, some local governments are providing these young people with other unemployment options, from computer coding to coronavirus test coordination.
It is a rite of passage for many. For others, it's a financial necessity, and especially right now, as the job market remains tough for many workers. Because of the pandemic, traditional jobs for younger adults and teens, like camp counselors, lifeguards and waiters, are hard to come by. But, as John Yang reports, some local governments are providing young people other options.
In this summer of the pandemic, a new breed of summer jobs, like working at this drive-through COVID-19 testing site in the parking garage of a Montgomery County, Maryland, community center in suburban Washington, D.C..
Eighteen-year-old Shaun Fayson is on summer break from college.
Right now, I'm doing traffic control and just running samples back and forth. Yesterday, I was doing intake, so helping people with their registration and things like that.
Is this what you expected to be doing this summer?
Not at all.
They are part of COVID Corps, a summer jobs program created by the county to support its pandemic response.
About 100 people, ages 16 to 23, are paid $14 an hour, the county's minimum wage, to do things like distribute food to vulnerable families, disinfect county pools, put up signs to raise awareness about COVID-19, and, like at this testing site, help track the virus itself.
In a way, it's a civics-building exercise.
Marc Elrich is Montgomery County's top elected official.
I think that's good for them. They can kind of see up close what people do. They get to see up close what people are going through.
For many teenagers, government-run summer jobs programs are especially important this year, as traditional summer jobs have dried up.
In July, the teen unemployment rate was 19 percent, nearly twice the overall rate, and up from 13 percent last year.
Seventeen-year-old Mekdie Wilson usually spends her summers as a counselor at county day camps, but they were canceled this year.
I'm extremely lucky, because I know I have some friends that are struggling to find jobs due to corona.
For years, city-run summer jobs programs in places like Boston, New York and Chicago have employed tens of thousands of young people from low-income families.
University of Michigan economist Sara Heller:
On average, in the past, kids have been earning between $700 and $800 more than they would have otherwise. And in families that are living in neighborhoods where median income is about $35,000, that's a lot of money.
That's even more important this summer, as many parents have lost jobs or taken pay cuts because of the pandemic.
And so the money that these programs provide seems very likely to help fill a gap between need and income right now.
Studies have also found that city-run jobs programs have unexpected longer-term benefits.
Two to seven years after the program, it's not improving future employment outcomes. What it is doing is generating big reductions in violence and criminal justice involvement.
The pandemic led some cities to cancel this year's programs because of safety concerns.
In Chicago, officials were determined to find a way for its summer jobs program for teens and young adults, called One Summer Chicago, to continue.
Chicago Department of Family and Social services Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler.
Lisa Morrison Butler:
There was never a moment where we considered not going forward with One Summer. There were also moments, however, where we were really scared about what that meant, because it was so difficult to figure out how we would reimagine it in the time that we thought we had.
How did you reimagine it?
Well, we took it all virtual.
Do you have the app in front of you?
For example, multiple times a week, these participants attend a computer coding class via Zoom. They're paid to learn, but they also developing an app to coordinate laundry pickup and delivery for people who were trying to stay isolated.
For 23-year-old G'Linda Hawkins, it was a lifeline.
The first class that we went, we dived straight in. I'm like, oh, this is kind of interesting. And I was willing to learn more about it. And, yes, I loved it. I love it.
Before, Hawkins was unemployed, not because her job went away, but because she had to quit to take care of her 2-year-old son, Terrell Jr., when his day care closed because of the pandemic.
It is just amazing actually being able to work at home and still be able to teach him and just watch him just expand and just grow.
While her coding class was temporary, Hawkins hopes the skills she's learning and the connections she's making will help her find a permanent job. and working on the app makes her feel like she was making a difference.
I always wanted to come up with a solution to help my community and help the world, make the world a little bit more better.
In Maryland, Shaun Fayson has that same satisfaction.
I'm benefiting from being able to say that I am helping keep our community safe and secure, you know, giving back in whatever way I can.
A sense of purpose in the midst of a most challenging summer.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm John Yang in Silver Spring, Maryland.
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John Yang is a correspondent for the PBS NewsHour. He covered the first year of the Trump administration and is currently reporting on major national issues from Washington, DC, and across the country.
Gretchen Frazee is a Senior Coordinating Broadcast Producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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