As the national economy continues to recover from recession, the New Haven Board of Alders’ Youth Committee met last night to discuss potential solutions to combat the city’s youth jobs crisis.
The meeting offered an opportunity for the youth committee, chaired by Ward 1 Alder Sarah Eidelson ’12, to hear testimony from Mary Reynolds, executive director of New Haven Works, a city program dedicated to connecting residents with jobs at local companies and institutions. New Haven Works also collaborates with Yale and other universities to provide internships for disadvantaged residents, many of whom have no college education. The youth jobs crisis in the city and state is particularly acute — at least 60 percent of low-income youth in Connecticut have never held a paying job, said Rachel Heerema, the executive director of the Citywide Youth Coalition.
Reynolds said that, as a result of the post-2008 economic downturn, companies have raised the level of qualifications necessary for jobs, making many young New Haven residents no longer eligible for these positions.
But some, including Ward 14 Alder Santiago Berrios-Bones, believe college degrees can often be meaningless in equipping youth with the tools necessary to succeed in the workplace. He said the city should focus on providing youth with skill sets, not with degrees.
“After so many years of studies, I look back and I say that I didn’t need all those credits that they made me take,” Berrios-Bones said. “I just need the credits to do the job … just train the person to do the job. It’s much cheaper, and people don’t get into those huge debts.”
Reynolds, however, said he believes that the critical issue with youth employment in New Haven is actually a dearth of jobs on the market. Hospitality and food service are the two most rapidly growing sectors in New Haven, she said, but they are still hiring few young people.
“[The youth] are ready — you just need to hire them,” she said. “It’s not a skills gap; it’s a lack of opportunity.”
Ward 23 Alder Tyisha Walker said she believes the youth committee could spearhead an uptick in employment.
She specifically said exposing young people to employment opportunities early in life should be a priority for both the committee and New Haven Works, a sentiment that Heerema echoed. Walker added that the organization should begin to work on breaking down the system wherein a bachelors’ degree is a prerequisite for oftentimes menial jobs.
New Haven Works has rapidly expanded since its inception in 2013. The organization has seen large crowds at its orientation sessions on Saturday mornings, which over 2,300 residents have attended so far. Of those attendees, 323 were hired or placed into a job program. The organization currently works largely with people between the ages of 18 and 24, but Heerema suggested that they begin to reach out to younger high school students.
The organization still has a long way to go, Reynolds said. Youth unemployment is an enormous and pressing issue, she added, and New Haven Works must start on a small scale.
“We’re not going to solve the whole [problem],” said Reynolds. “But if we could get a hundred into quality paid jobs that lead to an entry level career pathway, then you start to see the collective impact of that.”
New Haven Works already has extensive relations with Yale, Reynolds said. Twenty-four residents held paid internships with Yale through New Haven Works in 2014; this year, she said, the program hopes to place 35.
Walker said changing the perception of New Haven students and residents is an important goal. She added that opening an honest conversation into youth employment and poverty in the city is an accomplishment in itself. Too often, she said, city officials and representatives “talk around what the real problem is.”
The youth committee will begin looking into data relating to youth employment in New Haven, Eidelson said, per Reynolds’ suggestion. Reynolds added that the alders can assist in community outreach in preparation for the employment expo that New Haven Works plans on holding in early May.
The youth committee will hold its next meeting on March 4.