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Summer Jobs Enrich Lives At Risk, Counter Teen Violence

By Rick Green

June 12, 2012

We're hearing a lot about violence and young people in Hartford lately, so I'd like to tell you about what a summer job has meant for one city teenager.

Nathan Orr was at home helping one of his six siblings with homework when a bullet crashed into his house one day after Christmas a few years ago, striking him in the eye. He was only 13 and had no connection to the gunplay, but the event could have knocked him off track, leaving him angry and bitter or worse.

Since then, what's helped to change his life has been what he does in the summer. It's a government program that trains young people for work and matches them with employers. In a few weeks, Nathan, 17, will be among nearly two dozen Hartford teenagers starting a summer job at Aetna.

"Having a job means having your time not taken by negative things, such as being at parties or being on the street. You have to dress appropriately and build a habit of going places on time. It's responsibility. Things like that,'' Orr, a humble kid with a big grin, told me Tuesday when I found him after he collected a scholarship award. "If kids were doing something constructive, they wouldn't be on the street getting shot. "

As we wring our hands and worry about teenagers and guns and the coming summer, it's important to look at Nathan's story.

A job can be the best social welfare program out there.

This year the state agency that coordinates summer job programs, the Connecticut Workforce Development Council, will find work for about 5,000 low-income students across the state. But an additional 7,000 during this Great Depression for teenagers have been turned away. In Hartford, about 2,000 teenagers will be hired through the program.

"It's anything from Marshalls to a law office to a manufacturer, " said Sandra Rodriguez of Capital Workforce Partners, which coordinates the Hartford-area jobs program. "We are always aware that if we can put more kids to work it takes crime and violence off the street."

The program includes subsidized jobs and training for students at dozens of employers, both public and private. Some of them, such as Aetna, hire students with state assistance.

This year the state committed $4.5 million toward summer job programs. The city of Hartford is spending an additional $1.25 milion. We ought to be spending far more on training the state's future work force.

"It's not nearly enough,'' said Trish Torruella, acting assistant director for youth services for the city of Hartford. "I really worry about what those kids are going to be doing over the summer. It's common sense to say if young people are engaged in a career path it's likely at the very least to reduce the seriousness of the violence in the city. It's a huge issue."

An unsettling new report by Northeastern University economist Andrew Sum notes that employment for teenagers and young people in their early 20s has dropped more than with any other age group. Last year, Sum estimates, just 30 percent of all teenagers held any kind of paying job in the summer the lowest in the post World War II era. For low-income and minority teens, the numbers are even worse. Last summer, just 14 percent of low-income black teenagers had a job.

This year, Sum predicts an overall teenage summer employment rate for the country of just 26.8 percent.

Hector Rivera, chief operating officer for Our Piece of the Pie, which runs a summer job program in Hartford, told me that for some students, a job "changes their whole persona as far as being a responsible person. When you combine work developpment with education, young people are more probable to be successful in life."

Which brings us back to Nathan Orr, who will ride his bike or hop a bus to get to work at Aetna this summer. This fall, he begins a college career at Goshen College in Indiana. Since he began with the Workforce Partners program, Nathan has honed his job skills, worked for a printing company, and discovered he's not suited for a job in the tobacco fields.

"At the end of the day you only have to look in the mirror and either be proud of yourself or ashamed of yourself. I want to be proud of myself in the future,'' Nathan told me. "You take the experience of having a job and you apply it to your life."

It isn't just a summer job. It's a chance at a whole new life.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
     
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