Keyonie Teague, 16, walked nervously into her first job interview during an April 21 economic and empowerment conference sponsored by the Austin-based Westside Health Authority and held at By the Hand Club for Kids, 415 N. Laramie St. When she emerged from the room moments later, she was confident she would have gotten the job if the interview were real.
“He told me he’d give me the job, because I’m the first person who showed him my resume,” Teague said without a trace of anxiety.
Teague was one of at least 40 youths, ages 16 to 25, who gathered at By the Hand for two days of intensive job skills training, networking opportunities and mock interviews. The conference was co-sponsored by the Coalition for Community Banking, US Bank, South Austin Community Coalition, Westside Federation and New Birth Christian Center.
According to a widely cited study released in January by the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, the jobless rate for blacks, ages 16 to 19 years old, was nearly 90 percent in 2014. For Hispanics or Latinos within that age bracket, the figure was 85 percent.
The rate of black Chicagoans, ages 16 to 24 years old, who were both out of work and out of school in 2014 was 31 percent. Black males in Chicago were four times more likely than whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics or Latinos, to be both jobless and out of school.
In their executive summary, the authors of that report cited the numerous community meetings sponsored by organizations like WHA that convened “young people of color from throughout Chicago to share their experiences before a panel of elected and appointed state, county, and city officials.”
While the report provided a bird’s eye view and data-rich diagnosis of a problem that many service providers have felt on a visceral level, the April 21 event was geared more toward administering solutions.
Jesse Duncan, a 25-year-old community organizer with WHA, was among those tragic statistics when he first entered the program as a teenager. He said transitioning to the labor force required some major attitude and behavioral adjustments — changes that he’s still getting used to.
“I definitely had to change my language,” Duncan said. “I’m still working on my attire and social media. I have to clean my social media up now. I found myself changing my social media name. It can’t be a nickname. When [employers] get that name, everything is over.”
Social media profiles, Duncan said, are often overlooked by the youth he advises as important aspects of a person’s employability, but it can haunt them in the job hunt.
“Your social media is added to your email. They put that email in, your social media page pops up and it’s over with,” he said. “They see all of those years of junk on your page. And they’ll go all the way back to grade school. You go to call them back and, all of a sudden, they’re no longer available.”
When asked if the mock employer who’d just hired her would have to reconsider once he saw her Facebook page, Teague said she wasn’t worried.
“I told my mother, I’m going to deactivate my page, because everybody wants to be in your business,” said Teague, who said that she’s had several summer jobs in the past.
Among students and social service providers who attended the two-day event, the precise causes of such high rates of joblessness in communities on the West and South Sides varied, oscillating between the personal and the systemic. There are either plenty of jobs, but too few skilled laborers to take them or not enough jobs even for those who want them, according to those interviewed.
“I go to a lot of job fairs and fill out a lot of applications, but waiting on them to call back and stuff — that’s a big challenge,” said Kenyatta Cross, 17, and a senior at Austin High who said she’s had a summer job and various school-related internships.
Cross, an aspiring forensic scientist, said she doesn’t think the challenge with getting call backs has anything to do with her social media presence.
“My Facebook is good,” she said confidently. “Now, some of my friends have pictures with their clothes off and stuff.”
Timothy Henderson, 18, a junior at Austin High and aspiring journalist, said he believes there are plenty of jobs available to those who want them, before pausing when considering his own experiences. He said he’s held two seasonal positions in the past, but echoed some of Cross’s concerns.
“The challenge is going through the process of getting an interview and when they call you, they always say, ‘We’ll call you when we have the position,’ but they never do,” Henderson said. “That gets you thinking, ‘Well, did I sound right? Should I have made myself sound a bit more professional?”
Tina Chenault, a program developer with WHA, said the biggest challenge she and her colleagues encounter when trying to prepare the young West Siders for formal employment is building trust.
“A lot of our young people want jobs, but aren’t motivated to do the work it takes to get the jobs, such as being on time, filling out paperwork, being cooperative, pulling away from their phones,” she said.
“But once we build the trust and [a relationship], they start to be more receptive with what it is you’re trying to teach them and they start to know that you have their best interests at heart. They’re probably used to adults telling them what they’re doing wrong, and judging and labelling them.”
San Spears emphasized certain structural features of the economy to explain the jobless rates found in that UIC report, which was commissioned by Alternative Schools Network, where Spears is a project coordinator. ASN provides job training and skills development to inner-city youths.
“Because of the lack of employment opportunities in so many areas, young people aren’t getting a chance for that first job,” Spears said.
“It’s hard to find employers who are actually hiring. That’s a big problem. There’s a big lack of opportunity to get that experience. And we really encourage career pathways as opposed to just looking for a job. It’s two-fold. It’s about getting the economy where there are some jobs and about helping to supply the training so people are ready for them when they get those jobs.”