PITTSFIELD -- It's a tough world out there for working-class teenagers.
"Youth employment is at its lowest point since the 1940s, not only in Berkshire County, but in the state and across the entire nation," said Heather Shogry-Williams, youth director for the Berkshire County Regional Employment Board.
For a ninth year, however, the state grant-funded summer YouthWorks program was able to hire 55 young workers, ages 14 to 21, to participate in workforce training and jobs in the Pittsfield area. This year, for the first time, Kelly Groves, youth counselor for Berkshire Works Career Center, coordinated the program.
"I'm really impressed by everybody and their performances," Groves said.
On Friday, 44 students successfully completed their training and work commitments. They were honored with a ceremony held in City Council chambers at Pittsfield City Hall and certificates awarded by Pittsfield Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi.
"You all now have myriad skills to add to your resume. You also have us so keep in touch," Shogry-Williams told the group of teens, who were accompanied by parents, friends and some of their summer employers.
Sixteen-year-old Kristen Banister is among the 44 students who participated in the summer job program with the help of her guidance counselor at Taconic High School. She worked at Morningside Community School, where she previously attended.
"It was fun to see all my teachers and it gives you a reference for jobs in the future," Banister said.
The young woman supported the children and teachers. She worked 4 1/2 hours a day, Monday through Friday, for five weeks, which she said helped her earn not only an income, but 10 extra credits for high school.
Grace Banister, Kristen's mother, is proud of her daughter and said she appreciated the YouthWorks program.
"I think it gives [the youths] a chance to have responsibilities, a chance to earn their own income and to learn how to budget," the parent said.
Omar Pascual Polanco, 17, is also a Taconic student. He works part-time at Marshall's department store in Lenox and also worked full-time shifts doing production work and learning to run the kiln at Bisque, Beads & Beyond studio arts and retail boutique in Pittsfield.
He said he appreciated the studio work not only for the extra income, but because it was located closer to home. Pascual Polanco is also an artist.
"I like drawing," he said. "It's also a good program that gets kids out there into workplaces and keeps them off the streets."
Bisque, Beads & Beyond owner Donna Todd Rivers said the studio was so pleased with him, they'll be keeping the young man on as a regular employee.
Pamela Tobin, executive director of Pittsfield's Downtown Inc., is another happy employer. The organization was supported by 18-year-old Paige Young, a teen mother, who worked there 30 hours a week.
"For an organization that can get so overwhelmed in this season, it was a tremendous relief to have her with us," Tobin said.
Tobin described Young as a quick learner who is "really resourceful" and "attentive." She said the young woman taught herself new skills like how to do a mail merge and marketing techniques.
"She was and is incredible. I think all of these kids are an asset to the local economy," Tobin said.
Youth employment trends
n Young people are not working as much as they used to. Almost one in five young adults, ages 16 to 24, cannot find a job.
n Among 16- to 19-year-olds, the unemployment rate is higher -- about 26 percent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, this is the lowest rate since the statistic was first recorded in 1948. At the peak point in the late 1980s, the employment rate was almost 50 percent.
n Unemployment is also disproportionately hitting young teenagers of color: In 2010, almost 48 percent of black males ages 16 to 19 were unemployed; 35 percent of all Latino youth in the same age range were also unemployed.
n Researchers claim the trend in decreasing youth employment began with the 1990-91 recession and continues today. In addition to not gaining ground from the recession, teens now also have to compete with adults for jobs their age group has traditionally held, like retail and hospitality industry services.
Source: massyouthemployment.com and the Commonwealth Corporation.