Johnson’s plans to double the number of jobs for Chicago’s teens hit snags

City says 7,000 summer jobs are available for Boston youth ages 14 to 18

Just weeks before his inauguration, Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson is already trying to make progress on his top public safety priority in his first 100 days in office: to double the number of young people the city hires this summer.

Johnson said the day after he won a runoff election in April, which was dominated by concerns about crime.

Johnson’s Leadership Transition Team is made up of grassroots organizers and union leaders who build on the city’s current summer employment program for youth ages 14-24. Senior advisor Jason Lee said they have begun meeting with companies to push them to hire more children this season.

But doubling the number of teens enrolled in the city’s program may not be an achievable goal in Johnson’s first summer in office, experts told WBEZ. The new mayor will take office with just two weeks before the city’s deadline to apply for the summer job expires, and he will be strapped into the budget set by outgoing Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration.

Still, the researchers and community organizers said they were glad to see Johnson’s transition team try to address the hiring standard right away, because studies show youth hiring reduces violence among participants. And a new study finds that Chicago teen employment, especially among black teens, lags behind the national average.

Brandon Johnson Celebrates His Victory At The Marriott Marquis Chicago On Election Night.

Brandon Johnson celebrates his victory at the Marriott Marquis Chicago on election night.

Ashley Razin/Sun Times profile

said Jack West, the veteran Alternative Schools director in Illinois who runs the Alternative Schools Network, who backed Johnson’s runoff opponent.

“I think he can do it. It’s not going to be easy…but you can build,” West said. “He’s going to be mayor for four years, maybe after that.”

Corporate partnerships were limited

The city promoted its summer jobs program, called One Summer Chicago, last Thursday, with a callout for applications and for companies to sign up and hire more kids.

The program has struggled to return to pre-pandemic levels despite high demand for summer jobs and youth unemployment rates in Chicago as well.

Last summer, the city’s program helped place 20,544 young people in paid jobs — less than half the number who applied. In 2019, the city’s One Summer Chicago program employed 31,552 people—nearly all the people who applied that year.

The City works with community organizations and partners with sister agencies such as the Chicago Public Schools, the Chicago Transit Authority, and the City of Chicago Colleges as well as the Cook County Forest Reserve to recruit young people for publicly funded positions.

It also partners with companies that can shoulder the financial burden for the city by covering the wage costs of young workers. But in 2024, “there were limited job opportunities guaranteed by the partner companies,” said a spokesperson for the Department of Family and Support Services of Chicago.

Victor Teran, A Food Preparer Who Was Part Of The One Summer Chicago Work Program, Cleans Out The Refrigerator At Circle Foundation'S Benton House In January.

Victor Teran, a food preparer who was part of the One Summer Chicago work program, cleans out the refrigerator at CIRCLE Foundation’s Benton House in January.

File by Pat Napong/Sun Times

“There are more kids who want jobs than, typically, there are jobs available… We’re still nowhere near the scale we need if we want to have real impact on a citywide scale,” said Roseanna Ander, executive director of the university. From the Chicago Crime Lab, which has studied youth employment.

The need is high. The unemployment rate for 16- to 19-year-olds in Chicago exceeded the national average in 2024 by about 15%, and is higher for black teens in that age group, according to an upcoming study from the University of Illinois in Chicago’s major cities. Institute seen by WBEZ.

About 87% of black teens in Chicago were unemployed in 2024, the study showed, compared to 80% of all teens in that age group in the city and 66% nationwide.

Ward Ald previously said expanding the program to twice its size this summer would require larger buyouts from businesses, many of whom backed Paul Fallas in a mayoral runoff over concerns about Johnson’s plan to raise taxes on some businesses. Michael Scott. Scott chaired the City Council Committee on Education and Child Development, before leaving for the private sector and being appointed to the Chicago Board of Education.

Scott said Johnson’s challenge will be to “fix some of the rhetoric that may have caused a rift between the business community and the incoming administration”.

But Lee said the companies were “enthusiastic” about expanding youth employment.

“We’ve had incredible conversations with the business community. They’ve been so generous,” he told me. “They’ve expressed, for a while, an interest in this youth jobs initiative, and they see it as an opportunity for them to really get involved in something they’re passionate about.”

Even if more businesses ramp up this summer, West, the veteran director of alternative schools, said, relying solely on the private sector to boost employment will not be a panacea.

When hiring young people, many of whom lack job experience, the city needs to look for community organizations that can help prepare and pay inexperienced children for a job before they move into the private sector in subsequent summers, according to West. This requires increasing public funding from the state for summer programmes.

“You want to make sure they can show up on time, know how to follow through on instructions, and not curse at people if they get mad at them,” West said. “It sounds racist, but it’s not if they don’t have the experience. When they learn these skills, they become good prospects for all the jobs out there.”

Reach out to those who need it most

For the program to be successful in reducing violence, Ander said, the city needs to do more to recruit people most at risk from gang or other criminal activity. These include individuals who are no longer enrolled in schools, she said, and make up the vast majority of young people who have been victims of armed violence.

About 8% of 16-19-year-olds in Chicago were out of school and out of work in 2024 — and that’s even worse for Black teens (9.4%) and Hispanic teens (10.4%), according to an upcoming UIC study.

Some worry that the city’s summer jobs program in its current form is not reaching these children.

“It’s usually the good kids, who don’t have a problem, whose families already have access to One Summer Chicago who get these jobs,” said the 20th Ward Ald. Janet Taylor, who was recently selected by the Council to chair a newly created Committee on Youth Services. “[It’s] Not the young man who thinks of going into a gang or who is born into gang affiliation but has no way out.”

I Give Birth.  Janet Taylor (20) Speaks During A Chicago City Council Meeting Last Month.

I give birth. Janet Taylor (20) speaks during a Chicago City Council meeting last month.

Ashley Razin/Sun Times profile

Taylor, a mother of five, said her two daughters are frequently accepted into the program, while her two sons — one with autism and one with a behavioral disorder — were rejected. She suggests that the city should be more creative in the places where it recruits young people, such as neighborhood corner stores or gas stations.

study City Pilot Program 2012 – One Summer Chicago Plus, which included a job plus cognitive behavioral therapy and a mentor – showed that reaching high-risk children proves to be a successful public safety tool. The study revealed a 43% decrease in arrests for violent crimes for program participants during the year they participated in the summer program.

Although this version of the program no longer exists, the city is trying to expand the population served by the public program. In 2024, One Summer Chicago will for the first time begin prioritizing residents the city believes are most in need of resources, a spokesperson for the Department of Family and Support Services said.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel Visited With Some Of The Guys From One Summer Chicago, Where They Helped Clean Up 63Rd Street Beach In 2014.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel visited with some of the guys from One Summer Chicago, where they helped clean up 63rd Street Beach in 2014.

File Brian Jackson/Sun Times

These include people with disabilities, learners whose primary language is not English, so-called “opportunity youth,” whom the city defines as out-of-school and out-of-work children, and children enrolled in a low-quality CPS school, according to county rankings.

Last summer, 54.7% of youth in DFSS summer programs were identified with one or more of these “target populations,” the department said.

Fair pay in the case

During the summers she worked with the city’s Jobs Program, Assata Lewis learned organizational skills that propelled her to the role she holds today: program director for a youth-run organization pushing the city to better engage youth and give them safe spaces. with each other.

“These organizations have really helped define my skills in facilitation, content creation, curriculum building and things like that,” said Lewis, 23.

But the pay was terrible — she remembers making $400 the entire summer, and only getting paid twice in about a three-month period.

“You should definitely take another job,” Lewis said. “A lot of people know about One Summer Chicago, and a lot of people in those neighborhoods understand what it can do. But I feel like there are a lot of other opportunities to make more money doing other things. It’s just not very attractive.”

Since Lewis’ time with the program, the city has increased the pay rate for teens hired through DFSS-funded jobs, though it can’t say what sister agencies and corporate partners pay.

Three years ago, teens made $8.25 an hour. In 2024, kids ages 16 to 24 earned $15 an hour for 20 hours a week for six weeks, according to city officials.

Ashley Bevins Takes A Selfie With Mayor Rahm Emanuel While Visiting With Some Of The Guys From One Summer Chicago In 2014.

Ashley Bevins takes a selfie with Mayor Rahm Emanuel while visiting with some of the guys from One Summer Chicago in 2014.

File Brian Jackson/Sun Times

But those 14-15 years old earned a stipend of $75 a week for six weeks, or $450 total.

That aside, Lewis wants to see the city take a more aggressive approach to reaching kids who live in high-violence areas. Her group has been pushing to pass the so-called “Book of Peace Act” — which includes an app that helps connect teens to violence prevention organizations, jobs, and free events in their neighborhoods on a block-by-block level.

Lewis said Peace Book is more inclusive than previous efforts, and she hopes Johnson will make it a reality.

“Part of the problem with young people not being employed is that the only free space they have to do things is downtown,” Lewis said. She pointed to the troubles in the city recently when two teenagers were shot and 15 people arrested amid large gatherings of teenagers in the Loop.

“[With the peace book] There will be identification of what activities do young people need to want to be in their communities? Lewis said. “Because a lot of times they go downtown, they go to 31, or wherever it is, because they don’t want to be in their neighborhood. There is a feeling that people don’t care about their neighborhoods, or that they don’t care about them. Why would you want to stay in that environment? “

Maria Woelfel covers Chicago city government and politics for WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.