Two employees called in sick. As if that wasn’t enough, the payroll had to be done. No matter. Juanita McMullen, program manager of YouthWorks and a community- service veteran with 29 years of experience in this field, took it in stride.
“Youth service providers have always had to be extremely creative,” McMullen said.
Youth employment programs around the country may soon have to get even more creative, at least as far as finding funds. With national unemployment rates rising, the recent Northeastern University Center for Labor Market Studies report found Americans younger than 24 years old have been especially hurt by the economic slowdown. And in January, the Bush administration announced plans to cut federal funding for youth opportunity grants from $225 million to $45 million, effective in 2003.
Berkeley has been sheltered from those cuts because unlike most cities, which rely heavily on state and federal funding for their programs, it provides more than 85 percent of the budget.
“I love this city,” McMullen said. “We are lucky the city has always been supportive. Say ‘thank you’ to those folks from me.”
The city clearly appreciates YouthWorks’ accomplishments. In McMullen’s McKinley Avenue office, a bookshelf covered with framed awards sits near her impeccably organized desk. That’s probably because she and her staff have helped thousands of young people find jobs.
This summer — as it has for several summers running — the program will help 400 14- to 25-year-olds find jobs and apprenticeships in a variety of fields, including biotechnology, city services and technology. To apply during the weeks after March 1, applicants need to be Berkeley residents who have photo identification and a Social Security card.
During the year, they run an after-school work-program where several dozen students are enrolled.
McMullen and her crew of four career counselors also help clients create resumes and prepare for job interviews.
Some students have never seen a resume before or panic at the thought of a job interview. Tahira Warner, 23, said she was really nervous about starting to apply for jobs, until McMullen rallied behind her. YouthWorks and high-school counselors helped her finish her first resume and start applying.
“Juanita was always around campus,” said Warner. “She’s always energetic. She makes you more confident that you can find a good job.”
That confidence helped her get two internships at the Port of Oakland and a third with the City of Berkeley. Warner now wants to talk to other students as an example of a YouthWorks success story.
YouthWorks provides job development and placement, resume preparation, career counseling, work site monitoring and job skills training. Counselors also monitor job performance and help young people work on their strengths and weaknesses.
Warner is a classic program success-story. She was hired full time by the city of Berkeley when she graduated five years ago. She now works for the city’s mental health services office and “absolutely loves it,” she said.
Berkeley Unified School District has worked closely with the YouthWorks program to help students like Warner think about their careers while in high school.
Like students, program employees say much of the program’s success is due to McMullen’s dedication.
“She comes in weekends and attends every ceremony honoring our kids,” YouthWorks employee Jenny Seay said. “She has a genuine love for each and every student. A lot of them call her ‘Mama Bear’ or ‘Auntie.’”
In her purple head-wrap and matching top, the 54-year-old Oakland native seemed like she would be anyone’s dream aunt. As she talked, she referred to clients and even reporters as “good baby” and “sweetie.”
Despite her energy, McMullen admits economic troubles have hurt employment services in the past.
“When I was most worried was when you were going to choose between helping the child or parent finding a job,” she said, referring to her early days in the field. “But we have so many resources for youth now.”
She said she has “heard rumblings” about new budget cuts and the affects they will have on youth services. In the Bay Area, where unemployment, now at seven percent, has grown much faster than in Southern California, some local youths say they’re not sure if they’ll be able to find work.
“I don’t know if I’ll have a job this summer,” 15-year-old Glenda Reyes said, as she sat with her friend Juana Castro outside Berkeley High School. Both said they have friends who have found jobs through YouthWorks, and so they too may apply to the program.
So far, Reyes has worked for her mother, a janitorial supervisor, but she isn’t working currently. Castro does office work at a local chiropractic office.
Jeré, another Berkeley High student, who declined to her full name, said she wanted to apply to the program.
“I’m 14. I didn’t think there is anywhere where I can work,” she said.