For a large portion of Merced’s youth, September no longer means the start of a new school year. Instead, the promise of fall hangs like a dark cloud, reminding them of how much time has passed since they began looking for full-time jobs.
“I started looking for a job as soon as school ended. I applied to so many places: Dollar Tree, Little Caesar’s, Domino’s and most recently, a sweet potato factory out in Livingston. If I see a ‘now hiring’ sign, I walk in and apply,” Víctor Seguín, 17, said.
A recent graduate of Merced’s Yosemite High School, Seguín hoped to earn enough money this summer to help pay for college and earn his teaching credential. But as the months dragged on, he’s grown less optimistic about the job opportunities in Merced.
“I’m thinking of moving away at the end of the year. I have a lot of friends out in Modesto and they’re getting jobs out there. They’re kids still in high school and they’re getting jobs,” he said. “I have a friend who just got a job at In-N-Out there and another one who works at Boomer’s, and I’m over here just applying to every place possible and I haven’t got anything.”
Seguín is not alone. Eighteen-year-old Cheyenne Chaddock said she’s looked for work off an on since the age of 16.
“At first I didn’t have a job permit so I was looking for small time stuff, like can I mow my neighbor’s lawns, but of course nowadays everyone has a gardener or some form of one so I couldn’t even do menial jobs,” she said.
After graduating from Golden Valley High School this June she expanded her job search by calling in at various local businesses, walking in applications and even creating a resume. So far nobody has called back.
Her conclusion: “Merced is in a drought, in every sense of the word. Businesses just aren’t hiring, and they’re not hiring youth. If you’re looking for a job in Merced, you’re doing it wrong.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the city’s total unemployment rate hovered around 10.5 percent for most of the summer, double the statewide average and a few points higher than neighboring Valley cities like Stockton and Fresno.
While its unclear how much of the unemployment rate includes local youth, community advocates have long warned of the need to create more job-related resources for young people in the city.
The opportunities for employment available to young people within Merced are very limited, said Michelle Xiong, youth coordinator with Building Health Communities Merced. Besides working in the fast food industry, very few jobs are marketed to teens and young adults.
“I think young people in our community are viewed as irresponsible. Just to show up on time, being punctual, not drunk or high – I think employers take a lot of that risk in investing in young people, which I think has to do with the view and narrative we have imposed on them,” she said.
These assumptions are leading to missed opportunities, for both the employer and potential employees. Xiong pointed out that when young people have a trusting relationship with an adult, they are more likely to make smart choices and behave responsibly.
“They care about that trust and preserving it,” she said.
Several years ago, Xiong and Merced BHC attempted to solicit community and city support for a program aimed at helping offset the cost of local businesses hiring youth. The BHC program would have used city funds to help pay for uniforms and bus passes for teens and young adults who were hired while also giving local business owners a strong sense of support for their efforts.
A survey conducted at the time by Communities for New California found that a majority of Merced-area business owners are in favor of employing youth, but would like to see more infrastructure in place to support their individual efforts.
“The survey kind of took the temperature of the business community and overall we saw a lot of support for the idea,” Xiong said. “But when it comes to funding it, it’s a whole different ball game.”
The program proposal fell through at the Merced City Council level and Xiong said she’s uncertain if the outcome would be any different now.
“It might take somebody on the council really pushing for it, before the city will take a serious look at youth employment resources,” she said.
Job resource programs like the Merced County Office of Education’s EMPOWER and Regional Occupational Program (ROP) and the grassroots Mentoring Odd Jobs Organization (MOJO) are helping fill the gap, but more resources are necessary for young people like Seguín and Chaddock who are out of school and looking for steady work.
Without the support of a large community partner or job-placement program, the two are left facing the same old barriers to employment: age and image.
“There’s a real stigma for youth because of the crime rate and gang activity. People assume that you’re involved and don’t want to hire you,” Chaddock said.
For those under 18 there’s even fewer opportunities, and Seguín said jobs at some of Merced’s most popular businesses remain beyond his reach.
“I can’t handle alcohol or tobacco products because I’m underage, and that’s all there is in Merced. Just gas stations and convenience stores.”
He’s remained active in his search efforts though, even announcing plans to walk over to The Family Dollar and see if they are hiring.
According to Xiong, an entry-level retail environment like that is considered a good fit for youth because it allows them to improve customer service and social skills.
Later that day, however, Seguín heard the news; the Family Dollar store doesn’t hire anyone under the age of 18, leaving him back at square one.