Image: The Truth About
By Deborah Juarez
For a teen with little job experience, “Now Hiring” can be the two greatest words in the English language. But in Merced County, which according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics currently has the fifth highest unemployment rate in the state, going from applicant to employee depends less on what you know than who you know.
Every job or other opportunity I’ve ever received has come through personal connections.
I remember applying for a job when I started college last fall. I landed an interview and it wasn’t going well. The interviewer began to politely reject me until I mentioned a friend who was already an employee there. Suddenly, the interviewer’s body language, attitude and energy did a complete 180, and just like that I was in.
But I left the office with an uneasy feeling. Would my application have been overlooked if I hadn’t mentioned my friend’s name?
Many young people aren’t as fortunate to get this leg up from a friend or family member, and not landing a job can have serious consequences as we begin our adult lives.
The long-term impact of being unemployed while young are real and damaging. According to the Center for American Progress in “The High Cost of Youth Unemployment, “A young person who has been unemployed for six months can expect to earn about $22,000 less over the next 10 years than they could have expected to earn had they not experienced a lengthy period of unemployment.”
Those are resources that could go to rent, student loans, car payments and other life expenses. A summer job is not just a summer job; it can determine a young person’s whole future.
The issue is particularly troubling in Merced, which ranks third the state in the number of disconnected youth, or people ages 16-19 who are neither in school or employed. Nearly 12 percent of young people here fit into that category, at exactly the age when young people are desperate for a job or educational path forward.
For those who do land work, finding a job at 16 helps grow much needed independence and skills — and the stakes only get higher from there. At 17, anxiety begins because the real world is looming, and whether it’s college or the working life, it’s not cheap. The crisis is full blown by 18 and 19, because by then it becomes crucial to begin cultivating a history of employment.
But if you don’t know the right people, starting down the career path can be tough. And here in Merced, with so many out of work it’s that much harder to connect with someone who can open doors. That’s especially true for young people from low-income and immigrant communities.
The picture grows worse when you think that a lot of the youth in Merced and across the Central Valley are sometimes competing with out-of-work adults for the same, limited number of jobs.
“It is basically how the world works now, you need someone to get you into a good position,” says Merced native Fernando Almaraz, 18.
He’s right. Reports show that most job seekers nationally find work through personal connection rather than traditional job sites or random applications.
Almaraz, now in his sophomore year at George Washington University in Washington D.C., credits a friend who introduced him to We’Ced Youth Media just before his senior year of high school with paving a way forward. Through his involvement in We’Ced, Almaraz received an opportunity to participate in a program with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI) in D.C. Once he started at GWU, individuals from the CHCI were able to help him land a paid internship. As his network grew, so did his opportunities.
Then there is the experience of Tia Tate, 18, who has been filling out applications and searching for job openings through friends and social media for months now.
“It’s my lack of experience and a lack of connections,” Tate explains. “Maybe I’m not getting hired because [employers] don’t really know who I am, or maybe they are looking for specific kind of skills that I don’t have.”
Tia’s story is a common one. So maybe it’s time we add network building to class curriculums, because it’s a skill young people clearly need. Being able to present one’s self and connect with those who can help professionally is an important tool to navigate early adulthood.
I’m lucky to have been able to be in the right place and know the right people, but I know not everyone is so lucky.