Twenty-year-olds looking for summer work commonly wind up stocking shelves at the local supermarket, or taking orders at the fast-food place down the street. But for 600 Camden County youths, and others like them all over the country, this summer will be anything but typical.
These economically disadvantaged young people will participate in summer-employment programs funded under the federal stimulus plan. The programs aim to get them ready for employment through training and job experience.
After work-readiness training, each participant will be placed in a summer job with a governmental or nonprofit agency. The programs are for people 16 to 24, with an emphasis on those who are not in school.
"We want them to have a valuable work experience," said Kathleen Mayfield, director of Camden County's One-Stop Career Center, a service provided by the county. "We want those young people to get the feel for a work site."
Every county in New Jersey is participating, with $20.8 million in economic-stimulus money divided among them. Camden County's grant is $1.4 million, while Burlington County's is $199,000 and Gloucester County's is $295,000.
Mayfield said a summer-work program of this magnitude had not been conducted in more than a decade.
In order to be eligible, each participant must be considered economically disadvantaged based on federal guidelines.
In addition to being out of school, they can meet one of several factors to qualify, including teen parenting or pregnancy, a disability that would hinder them from finding work elsewhere, a skill set below the eighth-grade level, or any record with the law.
Mayfield said the Camden program was also interested in recruiting young veterans who needed a short-term job.
The priority, however, is recruiting young people who have been out of both school and work for six months or longer.
According to Barbra Weir, who oversees Burlington County's Summer Youth Employment Program, some have been out of school and work much longer than half a year.
It's these "disengaged youths" who are most at risk.
"It's not positive for them to be sitting around doing nothing. You don't want them joining gangs . . . you want them to get back into the workforce and give back to the economy," Weir said. "We're looking to capture these kids, to reengage them."
Weir said the 60 participants in the program, 52 of whom have dropped out of school, were simply not "work ready."
Many of them don't know, for example, that when they're sick and can't go to work, they need to notify a supervisor, Weir said. They don't know how to dress for work, or that they shouldn't have an iPod in their ears when answering phones.
She declined to release the names of the participants for privacy reasons.
Burlington County's program spans 10 weeks and features two tracks. Twenty of the older participants will take for-credit classes at Burlington County College while also working 210 hours at an on-campus job.
The other 40 are placed in jobs, matched up based on their interest, skill level, location, and transportation ability, and are paid $7.25 an hour.
Gloucester County officials are still working on their plans and could not provide details on their program.
Camden's program is slated to begin on June 15, Mayfield said. Officials are finding jobs through a request-for-proposal process, as well as signing up eligible youngsters.
About 300 applications have been received, and staffers are confident all 600 slots will be filled.
To find eligible participants, Mayfield said, they look for young people receiving unemployment, talk to the schools about dropouts, and look for youths aging out of foster care, people with disabilities, and young veterans.
The stimulus money funds each participant's salary through the county. No money is paid to the work site. Each site with an available job created the job specifically for the summer youth program; none of the participants will fill an existing position.
At the end of the program, on Sept. 30, each participant will be evaluated and offered services that include help applying for a job in the private sector.
At the end of the 10 weeks in Burlington County, Weir hopes the participants will go back to school, continue their current job or apply to another position.
"They will know the ins and the outs of the workforce," Weir said. "By the end of the 10 weeks, these kids will be work ready."
To sign up for Camden County's program, go to the One-Stop Career Center, 2600 Mount Ephraim Ave., Suite 105, Camden, or call 856-968-4200.
To propose a work site, call Tony Teti at 856-365-3970.