Portland: Equity starts this summer

[Editor: The following is a guest post by Meredith Goddard, Founder & Director of Five Years In]

Teenagers are less likely than ever to work summer jobs. There has been a precipitous and unprecedented decline in labor force participation rate for teenagers over the last 20 years. In August of 1998, 52.8% of 16-19 year olds participated in the labor force, a number that held steady since the 1950s. In August of 2017, just 35.2% percent of 16-19 year olds participated in the labor force, meaning most Millenials (and younger) have not held summer jobs. Instead of work, many young people are spending more time in summer school, traveling with sports teams and engaging in unpaid internships.

Young people are not opting out of summer jobs because they are lazy; rather, they are actually being strategic. Summer has become an increasingly important time for young people to define themselves, stand out, and get ahead. In part because just going to school, even excelling at school, isn’t enough to stand out in the college admissions game. A summer job isn’t seen as very compelling on a college application.

Instead of getting a summer job, many students now pay thousands of dollars per week to attend pre-college programs, like this one at Stanford or this one at Brown. Some students spend their summer on traveling sports teams, eager to be spotted by a college recruiter at a top school. Others take on an unpaid internship in hopes that office experience will demonstrate greater ambition and skill than the typical summer job. The opportunities available to students in the summer (high school and college) exacerbate the reproduction of social class in America (see this review of Richard Reeves’ book, Dream Hoarders) because only the most privileged students students can afford the exorbitant costs of pre-college programs or can forgo wages from a summer job.  

This all leads to two big questions:

  1. What can we do to make summer more equitable, enriching, and powerful for all students?
  2. How might Portland become an empowering ecosystem of opportunities for all young people?

Value summer jobs

Let’s convince parents and colleges that summer jobs matter. For this to happen, both colleges and parents have to move from short-term thinking (college as the end goal) to long-term thinking. The question that should be top of mind for parents and colleges should be, “what experiences will set this child up for success in adulthood?” There’s plenty of research to underscore the powerful and enduring effects of youth employment. For example, studies show that students with summer jobs perform better academically. Summer employment even correlates with dramatically reduced risks of arrest, incarceration and involvement with violent crime. A Brookings Institution study revealed that students with summer jobs are more likely to be employed and earn higher wages as adults.

Anyone who worked during high school or college can attest to the lasting impact these jobs have on their professional lives. In my case, working at a garden center in high school taught me all about customer service. Working as a seasonal laborer for the local Public Works Department gave me ample experience solving problems with diverse teams of people and challenged me to perform the most physical work of my life. My time as a UPS Driver Helper was a crash course in operations, communication, and logistics. You have to imagine that the soft skills gap would narrow considerably with a renewed focus and investment in youth employment.

Create equitable, innovative opportunities

Portland, let’s step up and provide opportunities for young people to develop skills, make connections, engage in mentorship, and learn to add value to organizations. It will take time and effort to convince parents and colleges to value summer jobs in the same manner they value participation in internships and summer leadership programs. It’s on all of us to create accessible, equitable, and empowering opportunities for all young people during the summer. Go ahead, Google search “high school internship Portland, Oregon.” You’ll find that the results are limited, at best. The Portland Workforce Alliance has aggregated some of the internship and mentorship opportunities on its page, but if you don’t apply early (November in some cases) or don’t get chosen in very competitive application processes, you are out of luck. Mac’s List, my go-to resource for meaningful local jobs in Portland, falls short when it comes to young people. While their job board is robust, internship opportunities are few and far between.

I’ve written about the lose-lose nature of internships before (especially for high school students), so let’s create programs and opportunities that are win-wins for students and organizations. Portlanders, can you offer an externship a la the externship model brilliantly described by Ayesha Khanna? Can we learn from and emulate the great work done being done by the Emerging Leaders Internship Program in Portland? Can you open your doors for a job shadow for a day or make yourself available for informational interviews with students?

I created the PDX Vendorship Program to be a kind of internship/work experience/summer leadership program all rolled into one. I also purposely contained the time commitment for this program to one afternoon/evening of work and one evening class per week so that participating students could also work a summer job. Portland is a creative, collaborative, forward thinking place. Let’s come up with more unique and empowering opportunities for all of our young people. Let’s build an ecosystem of abundance for youth starting this summer.

Make opportunities visible; develop an ecosystem of opportunities

I recently left my decade-long teaching career to prepare young people for the future of work and bridge the divide between school and the world. The most frequent request I get from parents and students is for a connection to a summer internship or leadership opportunity. Google searches yield scant results. The party line of many HR departments is no high school interns and few, if any, college interns on a competitive basis. In reality, students get internships and meaningful work-based learning experiences all the time based on who their parents know. HR departments and C-level executives bend the rules every day for children of friends or colleagues. But do we really want to live in a system that continues to reward those who have, according to Warren Buffet, “won the ovarian lottery”? How many “Lost Einsteins” will we tolerate? Access, information, connections, and opportunities for all Portland students, regardless of income or parents, is a moral imperative for all of us.

I started The Opportunity Board to help level the playing field for all students, beginning in high school. The Opportunity Board is a curated platform for students and parents to connect to empowering opportunities. It’s also a platform for businesses and organizations to find and cultivate the next generation of leaders. If you’re a student, keep checking back for more posts. If you’re a business or organization, be part of creating an empowering ecosystem for young people by posting opportunities and purchasing featured posts.  

A summer job used to be a rite of passage for young people, but that’s been replaced by summer programs, travel sports, and unpaid internships — hardships for many low- and middle-income families. If we can’t convince parents and college admissions departments of the value of paid work in the near future, how can we create an ecosystem of empowerment and opportunity for all young people now? Innovative programming and The Opportunity Board are part of the answer, but success will depend on the willingness of individuals, organizations, and businesses in Portland to share opportunities beyond their own networks and make investments in students they do not know. More than ever, we need an equity-focused grassroots ecosystem of opportunities in a post-work era for youth.

Summer is right around the corner. Students need our help.

Meredith Goddard is the founder and director of Five Years In, a local educational initiative to prepare young people for the future of work. FounderZ Weekend, the PDX Vendorship Program and The Opportunity Board are productions of Five Years In.