'Stimulus' Jobs Offer Skills, Paycheck to Disadvantaged Youth

The new U.S. federal program that’s meant to “stimulate” the economy back to health will spend more than $785 billion on education, infrastructure, and the environment, among other projects. The programs will lead to the creation of three-million jobs, President Obama has promised. A tiny fraction of the money will also pay directly for jobs for disadvantaged teens and young people. One such program in suburban New Jersey is giving some youths between 16 and 24 their first taste of the work world.

At the One-Stop Career Center in Hackensack, New Jersey, counselors are trying to put 400 youths to work this summer. "If you don't like the sun, the heat, you can do some office work,” a counselor tells a new prospect, 16-year-old Nahdir Gonzalez. 

To qualify, the youths must be economically disadvantaged, and also face at least one other barrier to getting a job, such as being a drop-out, or having been in trouble with the law. Gonzalez left school last year. Like everyone in the program, he'll earn the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour for working 20 hours a week through August.

“I want a job because I don't want to get in any trouble,” Gonzalez said. “I want to stay away from the streets, keep my head on my shoulders, stay on the right path, so I can be successful in life.”

Salvatore Mastroeni, a former high school principal, is the director of the publicly-funded One Stop career center, which offers training and job counseling to workers of all ages.

“There's going to be next steps for you after you leave this program,” he told Gonzalez. “Hopefully, in September or October we might be able to begin either a GED program for you, connecting you then with a college, [and] with a transition program for career pathways."

Mastroeni often makes the drive from Hackensack to nearby Englewood, New Jersey, where he's placed young workers at the recreation department and other local government units.

"Mayor's office, schools, any public entity where youngsters can gain workforce readiness skills,” Mastroeni explained. “And in our program, we will be teaching them workforce readiness skills: a lot of information on resume writing, preparing for applications, preparing for an interview.”

Eighteen-year-old Damar Palmer is one of the 320 youths hired so far. He works caring for grounds and buildings at the recreation center in Mackay Park.

"I enjoy it,” Palmer said. “These are things I like to do, I like to work with my hands. If it weren't for this job, I wouldn't be working. I wouldn't be giving back to the community.  So, I’m thankful for this job."

20-year-old Desirae Somerville is working in the office of a near-by school, and also helping out at the recreation center.

“They have me down at Liberty School, working with other children,” she said. “We're fixing up the classrooms, painting, and doing inventory.” Asked what she would be doing this summer if she hadn’t gotten a stimulus job, Somerville said, "I'd probably be home now sleeping -- or looking for another job."

But the purpose of the program is not only to help low-income youth to join the work world, Mastroeni notes. It's also to kick up economic activity through the young workers' spending.

“To help parents, to help them buy their sneakers or to buy clothing, to move the economy in some way, shape or form ahead,” Mastroeni said. “And we hope that this will help ignite the economy and get us moving in the right direction."

Most of the young workers say they'll spend their pay as fast as they earn it. Jonathan Nunnally, who lives with his girlfriend and baby son at his parents' house, said, "I'm using the money basically for paying for my little room that I rent at my mom's house, and paying for my son."

Desirae Somerville said she’s saving for a Florida vacation, and Damar Palmer wants to buy video games and clothes. Nahdir Gonzalez said he knows where his first paycheck will go.

“I'm going to the mall and I'm going to go shopping. And I'm going to reward myself with some clothes,” he said.

On a larger scale, U.S. lawmakers hope that other Americans who find jobs created through the stimulus program will do the same, and that their spending will jumpstart the national economy.
But for youth who face challenges to finding work even in a strong economy, Mastroeni says, the confidence and skills they gain in these subsidized jobs could prove more valuable in the long-run than their paychecks.

Abdul Hakeem Imoro also contributed to this report

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