Workzone: Black teen unemployment rate almost twice U.S. average

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School children all over the country know that Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day. There have been essay contests to commemorate the holiday, and classes nationwide will be listening to recordings of the civil rights leader's 1963 "I Had a Dream" speech.

Fulfilling that dream, however, won't be helped by the fact that the unemployment rate for black teenagers is 35.5 percent. The rate for all teenagers is 20.2 percent.

The statistic actually gets worse when you consider that, while a little more than a third of all teenagers are either working or looking for work, the participation rate in the black community is closer to one quarter. About 27 percent of all teens actually have jobs, while in the black community fewer than 10 percent do.

Experts agree that early employment leads to higher pay later. A 16-year-old with a first job is more likely to be a 19-year-old with a better job.

Research by Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, has shown that young people who have work experience in high school will earn more in their late teens and early 20s than those who don't.

That early work also provides lessons for young people in the workforce. A 16-year-old with a job learns to arrive to work on time and dress appropriately.

In communities with low teenage employment, those kids aren't learning those skills.

William Generett Jr., CEO of Urban Innovation21 in the Hill District, works to find internships for young people who are going to college.

What he has found is that the teens who don't have experience must be taught that they need to observe the culture of whatever workplace they are entering and emulate that. For instance, Federated Investors is more buttoned down and formal than Google might be.

Youths who have not had previous experience are farther behind on lessons such as reading an office culture, and those early inequities lead to later inequities.

For the 9.7 percent of black teenagers who are working -- particularly those who get jobs in businesses with a predominantly white workforce -- Mr. Generett suggests that they do their jobs well to break down any barriers that would hinder an employer from hiring other black teens.

And if the issue is that the company isn't recruiting minority youths, Paula Brantner, the executive director of Workplace Fairness in Washington, D.C., suggests employees can take the initiative to contact friends and family. "If the company is not leveraging its networks, then you may try to figure out how to use your own network," she said.

Because for job seekers of all races, the content of their character often takes the back seat to the content of their resumes and references.

Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.

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