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Columbia high school students find it tough to get work in tight market

Friday, March 27, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT
Demetria Stephens, left, a youth development specialist, helps Quincy Hines search for shoe stores that are hiring during a workshop at the Youth Empowerment Zone on March 11. The Zone aims to provide resources for at-risk youth to develop skills that will help them transition into adulthood.

COLUMBIA — Katie Weston, 17, a Rock Bridge student, has been looking for a job since late last year.

“I’m always looking for a job,” she said.

GED enrollment waitlist

The number of adults and former high school students enrolling in GED courses has increased in Columbia, along with higher completion rates amid the economic downturn. “The number of total hours that students have spent in class during the fall semester was up about 10 percent versus the same time period last year,” said Christian Phillips, assistant coordinator of the Adult Learning Center.

“Our largest group over the last several years are 25-44 year-olds,” Phillips said. “However, the younger students have been increasing in number. In 2007-2008, we enrolled 113 16-18 year-olds. This year to date, we have enrolled 111 16-18 year-olds, and we still have four months to go before the conclusion of the school year.”

Phillips also mentioned the extensive waiting list: “There are probably around 60 individuals waiting to start classes in March, and then a handful that have already been put on the May 11th session date," Phillips said.

 “In the current economy, getting a job is hard,” Phillips said about job search woes.  “These older individuals are having a hard time finding decent employment without a GED or high school diploma, making it even harder for younger adults with no education and no work history.”


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She's tried everywhere she can think of, including Chuck E. Cheese, Hy-Vee and retail stores.

Tonya Pollard, 18, who also goes to Rock Bridge, has been searching maybe even harder than Weston since she moved here last fall. She has searched the job ads online and gone door-to-door downtown looking for work.

The pair are part of a growing group of jobless teens in Missouri.

While unemployment rates for those ages 16 to 19 decreased slightly from 2007 to 2008, teens are still the most likely to be without jobs. In 2008, the unemployment rate for this age group was 16.5 percent, higher than any other age grouping.

Youth in Columbia are facing more competition than ever as they vie for jobs that adults want and, increasingly, get as the economy worsens.

Deanne Stubblefield, manager of Columbia Missouri Career Center, said it could get even worse this summer as businesses continue to hire adults who have degrees and work experience over students who have neither.

Students' lack of training or work experience is a major factor for businesses when balancing expenses early in the hiring process.

“The most expensive time to hire an employee is the training period because that individual doesn’t produce as much as experienced workers,” said Gary Taylor, branch manager for Job Point Wilkes Center.

Taylor helps 16- to-24-year-olds as well as people with disabilities or those facing barriers as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, find work in Columbia.

Although age is not considered a barrier as defined by that act, students encounter plenty of difficulty when looking for work.

Taylor echoed Stubblefield’s thoughts on the problem for Columbia students in the job market: highly qualified people, even those considered overqualified, are looking for jobs that normally would go to teens.  

Joey Gray, senior assistant manager of Burger King on Hyde Park Avenue, said one of the perennial problems for students looking for work is the hours they want to work versus the hours employers need them to work.

"We're very flexible, it just seems some people try to take that to the limit," Gray said about experiences with some high school student employees. He said most students quit working because they have trouble juggling homework and a minimum of 20 hours a week at Burger King.

Area high school counselors have observed the increasing difficulty students are having looking for work, but it's not all doom and gloom.

“Students that want to find work … find work,”  said Karl Christopher, a placement specialist at Columbia Area Career Center.

Christopher has worked with the center since 2001 and said he has noticed an actual increase in students who get higher skill-set jobs, especially in marketing and sales. 

But it does remain difficult for some students. “Low-skilled, low-paying jobs are fewer and further between,” Christopher said.

Hickman High School senior Shawn Hicks can relate to the importance of persistence.

Hicks, 18, looked for work for three months from late December until late February before he finally found a job at Sbarro at Columbia Mall.

He applied for a job at six different places.  “I just could not find a job anywhere,” he said.

In 2007 and 2008, Hicks worked at Chuck E. Cheese and Target. When he tried to go back to Chuck E. Cheese, he was told that only two new employees had been hired over the last four months. Target never called back. 

Hicks didn't let the the lack of response to his applications stop him. “I always called them back to show them that I really want the job,” he said.

Once he found a job, Hicks had to make some trade-offs with his school life. “I have cut my after-school activities for work,” he said. That included not trying out for the Hickman High School varsity basketball team and dropping out of the school play.

"I believe it’s hard because (employers are) looking for full-time employees, and I can’t do that because I go to school,” he said.

Pollard and Weston, the two Rock Bridge students who've been looking for work since last year, are getting some help from Columbia’s Youth Empowerment Zone, headed by the organization’s Youth Development coordinator Purvis Hunt III. Both took part recently in the job readiness training provided by the group.

Teens like them might also benefit from a January grant awarded to Job Point in partnership with the Missouri Department of Transportation.  The $167,000 Heavy/Highway Construction program grant is a one-year training plan for Columbia that focuses mainly on women, minorities and the economically disadvantaged.

The focus of the Heavy/Highway Construction program is to help “young people in our community who are in need of economic opportunity,” stated Mike Foster, Job Point president, in a recent news release about the program.

Job Point also has plans for use of additional funding to help young people find work.

"Due to the stimulus package, additional dollars were given to the Federal Highway Administration from Congress. They in turn contacted current grant recipients (such as Job Point) to see if there were additional needs or services to operate their programs," Taylor said.

These additional dollars will be put to use for the "On the Job Training" program for young people. Through the program, these funds would reimburse businesses 50 percent for training young people for specific jobs.

But when it gets right down to it, finding a job requires self-motivation.  

Katherine Corey, director of guidance for Douglass High School,  said students who perceive that there are fewer jobs don't try as hard and are less likely to find one.

Christopher agrees: “There is always an opportunity.”

 

 


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