A foot in the door

By Paula J. Owen

WORCESTER — Juan R. Martinez Jr., 19, started working when he was 14 with a landscaping company to make money to buy himself new shoes and go to the movies with his friends.

His parents struggled financially and couldn’t afford to buy him some of the things his friends had, like an iPhone or new clothes, he said, but finding a job in the city as a teen is nearly impossible, Mr. Martinez said of his experience, unless you’re lucky enough that your family owns a business.

“It’s difficult for kids to find jobs in the city,” Mr. Martinez said. “If you don’t have a mom or dad who owns a company, it is almost impossible to find a job. I wasn’t able to get new things other kids had because my family couldn’t really afford that, so I had to work.”

So, at 14, he turned to Worcester’s Community Action Council, which helped him find a job through the organization’s “YouthWorks Summer Jobs Program,” established to create summer jobs for low-income, at-risk, inner city youth between the ages of 14 and 21. Each summer, youths are given 18 hours of pre-employment training, along with six to seven weeks of meaningful paid work experience, and daily supervision and support through the program, funded through the state and administered by the Commonwealth Corp.

“I have friends who haven’t had a job in a few years,” Mr. Martinez said. “I feel like people don’t like hiring youth because they feel it is a liability because of their age and experience. I don’t understand why because youth are the most ambitious out there.”

A few years ago, the Quinsigammond College student started working for DeJongh “Dee” K. Wells, co-founder of Future Focus Media, a photography and filmmaking company on King Street, through the program at WCAC. Mr. Martinez says he loves the work and calls Mr. Wells his “sansei,” a Japanese term meaning “teacher.”

“He teaches more than photography,” Mr. Martinez said. “I’m learning a whole bunch of different skills I can take anywhere that will help me get other jobs.”

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in July 2016, 11.5 percent of people 16 to 24 years old were counted as unemployed. Additionally, research has shown that health and wellness factors are strongly tied to income levels and that children from lower-income homes are more likely to be overweight and in poorer health than those from higher-income homes.

As the summer job season gets underway, Attorney General Maura Healey is promoting work opportunities for young people, while raising awareness about their right to a safe and healthy workplace, with a youth summer jobs grant program. The program uses $300,000 in settlement funds to focus on promoting physical wellness and disease prevention among the state’s young people.

“We are pleased to be providing this funding that will advance healthy living and tackle obesity in at-risk communities for a third year in a row,” Ms. Healey said.

Mr. Wells said he started hiring youth in 2011 through WCAC summer program and also independently year-round.

“We know that youth need summer jobs, and we’re also teaching life skills and a trade they can always do,” he said. “Yes, we’re teaching photography and filmmaking, but we’re also teaching preproduction planning, creating timelines and sticking to it, and how to organize themselves. Those are soft skills that a lot of friends and family taught me that I am teaching them in a different setting while teaching photography that they will always have as a job or side hustle.”

Carrick J. O’Brien, director of the job and education center at WCAC, said the youth summer job market in the city looks a “little bit bleak.”

“Last summer we were able to put 370 youth to work, primarily from the Worcester area,” Ms. O’Brien said. “It is a win-win situation. The youth have an opportunity to gain some meaningful work experience, and it is also free labor for the employers that provide a good, safe, work experience, help with mentoring and help show them the way it is in the real world.”

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