Local youth find employment in creative ways.
This piece first appeared in The Vermont Standard.
Eighteen-year-old Caleb Davio is grateful for the small joys of holding down a job. He’s happy, at the start of his 8 AM shifts, to put on his black “Mac’s” apron and report to his cashier station. He enjoys greeting the Woodstock grocery store’s regular patrons, the familiar faces that respond in kind to his cheerful “how are you?” And, Davio says, it’s satisfying to keep an eye on the neighboring check-outs and jump in when needed to help bag canned peas or pints of Ben and Jerry’s. He even likes keeping up on the current price per pound of bananas and sweet potatoes.
Davio is learning, as are other area teenagers, that the tenacity he employed to find a job, and the energy he puts into doing it well, are paying off in more in more ways than just a salary.
Prospects for a job, any job, seemed pretty glum back in November says Davio, a Reading resident. He and his mom were counting their pennies, and the then senior at Woodstock Union High School was worrying about money. “What was going through my head,” he says, “was how am I going to support myself without burdening anybody else?” He peppered Claremont and West Lebanon businesses with applications, but got no takers, and usually, no responses of any kind.
By spring, Davio was still empty-handed and a bit frustrated. He’d been going into stores and talking with people, but he found out, at least for the big chains, that in-store managers didn’t seem have direct hiring authority. The on-line applications they required were all apparently screened by computers, not people.
“If you don’t match up on the mainframe, you don’t get the job,” he says, “there’s no human contact, you can’t make a connection, there’s just basic zeros and ones on a computer.”
Davio was partly the victim of a protracted economic downturn that has made finding work more difficult for job seekers of all ages. Mathew Barewicz, Economic and Labor Market Information Chief for the Vermont Department of Labor, says that while there isn’t rigorous data to quantify the extent of unemployment among 14 to 19 year olds in Vermont this summer, teens are particularly vulnerable during slow and recession economies. “There is a lot more competition [for jobs],” he says, “and it funnels down.” Experienced workers are vying for jobs, he explains, that in a more robust economy would go to new college graduates, who in turn are in the pool, at least temporarily, for jobs that the high school set are also seeking.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, nationally, unemployment among teens is hovering at around 25%. The outlook for Vermont teens is less bleak, says Barewicz, due in part to the state’s large and diverse tourism and hospitality industry, which draws local travelers in poor economies and distant visitors in better times. “The overall unemployment rate in Vermont is the fifth lowest in the country,” he says, “for teens, the rate can be anywhere from two to three times higher than the normal state wide average.” In May, the overall unemployment rate in Vermont was 5.4%, down from 6.3% in January.
Davio’s faith in the human-to-human approach to finding a job did finally pay off. In April, he heard rumors around school that there might be some openings at Mac’s Woodstock Market; he rushed over and handed a completed paper application to a living, breathing person. “I gave it to a day manager there, I wanted to be sure that it got into the right hands,” he says, “they don’t do on-line applications at Mac’s.” A week later, he had a job. He’s working about 28 hours a week now, and earning enough to cover the expenses of his old gas-guzzling car, which a friend generously gave him, and to sock away some savings.
But beyond the relief he feels from carrying his own weight financially, Davio also recognizes the importance of the people and teamwork skills he’s learning. And he loves the atmosphere at Mac’s. “My coworkers are great,” he says, “I can trust that if I make a mistake, they are there, and they will help me.” He particularly credits his manager, Bob Kazakiewich, “an all-around good guy,” with easing his transition from student to worker.
Davio hopes that college is in his future sometime, but for now he’s happy where he is. “I definitely plan to stay at Mac’s,” he says, “getting a good job was so hard, I’m not going to risk losing it.”
Summer and part time jobs are important for teens, says Rose Lucenti, a Career Grants Administrator for youth programs at Vermont’s Department of Labor. “The confidence and self-esteem that it builds are priceless for kids,” she says. And, a taste of the working world helps young people develop the “soft skills” that they will need later for long-term employment. The ability to arrive at work on time, schedule appointments outside of work hours, get along with coworkers, and show motivation are seemingly common sense attributes, but ones that Lucenti hears over and over from employers that they need and highly value. “They are critical for kids to learn,” she says.
On his fourth day of work last week, Reed Langona was out on the Faulkner Trail, the switchback path that leads from Woodstock Village to Mount Tom’s South Peak. He and a handful of other teens with shovels and pick axes dug out roots and stones, then packed the voids with dirt to level out the trail tread. Some would call their exertions hard physical labor, but to the sixteen year old Langona, the sunshine, the working with tools, the being with upbeat, friendly people made it more like nirvana. Through the first week of August, he and his Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC) crew mates will be working on outdoor projects in the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic Park. They’ll be repairing trails, clearing drainage ditches, constructing bridges, and the like.
Langona first discovered the VYCC when he spent two days with a crew during a camp program a few years ago. He decided to try for a regular spot himself after a VYCC representative spoke at Woodstock Union High School about the seven week summer program. “I’ve always wanted to be outside, and to give back to my community,” he says of his attraction to the group.
First, though, Langona had to make it through the VYCC’s screening process. The application he filled out asked questions about his accomplishments and experiences working with others.
The most nerve-wracking part was a thirty minute telephone interview with the VYCC Youth Coordinator. Langona really, really wanted the job, so he invested some time to think about the things he does well, and why, and then to write out notecards. It was tough going, because Langona isn’t normally one to talk much about himself. “It took about three hours to write out those notecards, they were really detailed and in sentences so I wouldn’t stumble,” he says, “I had them all laid out, I read them over, and I said, ok, I’m ready for this.”
Langona admits to being a little embarrassed about the intensity of his preparation, he kept his notecards hidden in a drawer before and after the interview, but his method was successful, and he won the job. The first few days of work have been all that he expected. “It’s good people, good pay, and it’s just a lot of fun,” he says.
Bonnie Lawrence is making her own job this summer, at least partly. Yes, the seventeen-year old rising Woodstock High School senior holds a conventional job cashiering a few days a week at the Woodstock Farmer’s Market, a place she says she loves because her supportive coworkers are like a family. But the rest of her time is devoted to practicing with her band, The Iridescent, and performing in their gigs.
For Lawrence, music is an obsession, but “not in a bad way,” she says. In kindergarten, she started up with the violin, then switched to the guitar at 12. Her instructor, Tuck Stocking, suggested she join a band, and helped get one going. Through his school and recording studio, Tuck’s Rock Dojo, Stocking works with the band and so far has booked their performances.
The Iridescent really clicked in the last year, and Lawrence switched from guitarist to vocalist.
That’s a job she coveted, but for a long time was scared to attempt.
It was listening to lots of bands and seeing more girl singers get recognition, and large followings, that gave her courage to try singing herself. Now her sweet and clear somewhere-between-alto-and-soprano voice is out, in front of the band. “I was always afraid that I would be rejected,” Lawrence says, “but I just did it and I’m happy about that.”
Lately, the band has added original songs to their modern and alternative rock repertoire. So in addition to their usual suite of works by groups like Green Day, Paramore, Incubus, and VersaEmerge, they’re also singing Eyes of Confidence, a tune that Lawrence wrote about friends, and how they can come and go. She’s drawing on a book full of lyrics that she’s been writing in for about as long as she can recall; the members of The Iridescent use the software program GarageBand and email to collaborate on songs when they aren’t physically together.
For the present, Lawrence has to rely on her Farmer’s Market job for spending money and to save for college, but she continues to labor at her passion as well. “I hope that at some point we can make money,” she says of The Iridescent, “I’d really like to pursue music as a career, I’d love to go on tour sometime.”
Julia Ambrose had her summer all set a few months ago. Like many teens looking to work full time, though, she had to piece a couple of jobs together. And it’s a good thing that she loves children, because she’s spending most of her mornings, her afternoons, and even some of her evenings with them.
Ambrose landed both of her jobs because of work she’s done in the past. Over the last two years, for example, the sixteen-year old babysat occasionally for a family friend; that led to a position this summer nannying a couple of preschoolers three days a week. At first, she grappled with the question that’s dogged many a parent: what do I do with the kids all day? It was daunting to have eight or nine hours to fill; Ambrose worried that her charges would miss mom or get bored.
But she drew on creative reserves she didn’t realize she had to come up with itineraries for each day, so there are no “now what?” moments. “It’s surprising how many different things you can do with kids,” she says, “and the more I get to know them, the more ideas I have.”
On the days that she’s not playing hide and seek or whipping up macaroni and cheese, Ambrose is often lifeguarding at the Woodstock Recreation Center pools. It’s a job she had last summer as well; to get it she had to pass Red Cross certification courses in lifesaving and cardiopulmonary resuscitation. She works her assigned shifts and often fills in when other guards can’t make theirs.
And although she’s said “please don’t run” more times, to more kids than she can count, she recognizes the gravity of her job. “It’s important,” she says, “you are responsible for the lives of the kids who are swimming.” Next year, she hopes to advance to swimming instructor.
There is still time for teens to find summer work, says Elizabeth Craib, the coordinator of the Woodstock Area Job Bank, which connects businesses and individuals who need paid help with locals who are looking for work. While she hasn’t seen lots of summer-long, full time jobs specifically earmarked for teens, there are opportunities for high schoolers who are willing to do odd jobs. Last week, for example, she had several calls for help with a few hours or days of gardening and yard work; she also gets requests for babysitters. And, she adds, there are local openings that aren’t included in the Job Bank’s listings. “I encourage kids to get out there and see what is available,” says Craib, “walk around and apply, look nice, show that you are reliable, enthusiastic, and conscientious.”
Teens shouldn’t shy away from tapping into their parents‘ friends and acquaintances, either. “I think local employers often want to hire someone that they know, that they’ve heard of,” she adds, “so networking is key.” Investing a few months in volunteer work this summer may also help currently jobless teens find paid work next year. There are a number of weeks yet remaining before school starts up again; Craib invites teens to come to the Job Bank office in Woodstock’s Town Hall to register and see what’s available.
Vermont does have a couple of programs to help teens find jobs, says the Department of Labor’s Lucenti. The Department’s homepage has an on-line “JobLink” service, anyone who registers can look through its job listings; some may be appropriate for high-schoolers. There are also twelve Resource Centers across the state that maintain bulletin boards with job postings, locations include White River Junction, Springfield, and Rutland. And, for kids who meet the eligibility requirements established by the federal Workforce Investment Act, there is a job mentoring program. “it’s a program that is designed to assist low income individuals facing employment barriers,” says Lucenti, “kids that may need a little more help to level the playing field.” Counselors work with teens who may have had troubles with the law or who have learning disabilities, for example, to find, and keep, work.
The Woodstock Job Bank office is in the Woodstock Town Hall, 31 The Green, telephone 802-457-3835. The website address for the Vermont Department of Labor is www.labor.vermont.gov, Vermont JobLink is on the upper left side of the page. Regional Resources Centers can be reached at the following telephone numbers: Rutland, 802-786-5837; Springfield, 802-885-2167; White River Junction, 802-295-8805.