Christian Strange was a little skeptical when he first entered the Columbia Urban League’s summer work program for teens last summer.
Strange has dreams of being an attorney, but he was placed in a program at the University of South Carolina where police officers are trained.
“I got there a little bit late, and they didn’t have room (in the law department),” said the 15-year-old Strange.
But Strange said he had a great experience that not only reaffirmed his decision to go into law but also lit a fire for success in all areas of his life.
“Research has long indicated the positive correlation between meaningful youth work experience and positive youth development,” James T. McLawhorn, president and chief executive of the Columbia Urban League, which conducts the Summer Work Experience Leadership Program, said in a statement.
The summer program – which was started more than 25 years ago – provides teens a competitive edge in the future job market by giving them work experience, he said.
This year, the program will provide opportunities for up to 275 teens, ages 14-19. The teens and their parents can get information at an orientation session from 5:30 to 7:30 tonight at USC’s Moore School of Business. Teens typically work 20 hours a week for two to four weeks and earn a stipend of $250. The program, which is funded by the city of Columbia, Richland County and USC, costs about $125,000 each year, McLawhorn said.
Unemployment among teens has soared as the nation struggles to recover from the worst recession in 80 years. In May 2006 – the year before the start of the Great Recession – the jobless rate for 16- to 19-year-olds in the United States was 14.5 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This May, it was 24.4 percent.
Work experience for young adults is critical for future success, said Tom Halasz, director of USC’s career center.
“It’s so difficult for teens to get work experience right now,” he said. “If they don’t get it early on, they’re less likely to get it later.”
Programs like the Urban League’s are important to fill the gap left by a struggling economy that sometimes has teens competing for summer jobs with out-of-work adults. Working teens learn problem solving, communication skills and goal setting, and they gain the confidence to take on other challenges, Halasz said.
Getting early work experience can help guide a youth’s education path and future work choices as well as make connections in fields of interest. Experience also can give them a leg up when they apply for a new job.
“It is just so valuable,” Halasz said.
Without the program, Strange says he probably would have spent the past couple of summers “doing nothing.” It has been a game changer. This summer, through the Urban League program, he is preparing to work in USC’s law department and also with 5th Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson.
“I just had such a fantastic experience last year, and I knew that I wanted to keep on growing and keep on learning,” he said. “This really has set me off into doing different things.”
In August, the former A.C. Flora High School student will attend the S.C. Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville to study theater.
“It was already something on my radar,” Strange said. “But I really wasn’t positive.”
Rejection from auditions had eaten away at his self-confidence, but the summer program went a long way in restoring it.
“They taught me to keep going and know that just because you’re facing dilemmas doesn’t mean you can’t do it,” he said.