Advocates worry about youth unemployment this summer amid pandemic

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Davidson County Juvenile Court Clerk Lonnell Matthews hosted a town hall meeting last week about the importance of summer employment for Nashville’s youth.

The online forum was relegated to Facebook Live and a livestream on Zoom because of the pandemic. Matthews worried COVID-19 could do more than change the way he holds community meetings. Statewide unemployment eclipsed 14 percent in April, up 3.5 percent in 2019.

That means out-of-work adults will be competing with youth ages 14 to 24 for the restaurant, retail and seasonal work young people pursue each summer. 

Nashville has made tremendous strides in recent years in the area of youth employment, identifying more than 11,000 jobs for young people especially in the summer months. Former Mayor Megan Barry created an initiative called Opportunity NOW in 2017 to help connect young people to jobs. The program is facing a possible budget cut from cash-strapped Metro at a time when Matthews said youth employment will be more valuable than ever.

Juvenile Court Clerk Lonnell Matthews (Photo: lonnellmatthews.com)
Juvenile Court Clerk Lonnell Matthews (Photo: lonnellmatthews.com)

Nearly 2,000 youth participated in the Opportunity Now summer internship and work program last year. The town hall last week was co-hosted by Opportunity NOW and Nashville chapter of My Brother’s Keeper, a national group launched by President Barack Obama following the shooting death of teenager Trayvon Martin in 2014.

Among other issues, My Brother’s Keeper focuses on ensuring young men of color graduate from high school and are ready for college and a career, which dovetails with the mission of Opportunity NOW.

Barry’s administration launched Opportunity NOW following a community-wide Youth Violence Summit, which brought together teachers, young people, community leaders, faith leaders and others in 2016. That group identified youth employment as one of its top priorities and the program has thrived.

But, Matthews, a former Metro councilman who worked in Barry’s Office of Neighborhoods before winning the clerk’s job in 2018, said there is worry among Nashville leaders who helped produce those successes in recent years youth employment is another aspect of life turned upside down by the pandemic. In addition to a $2.9 million appropriation from Metro, Opportunity NOW raised over $2 million in private funding.

“As I transitioned from the mayor’s office to juvenile court, we see juvenile crime statistics, mainly more violent crime statistics, go up in the summer,” Matthews said. “I think there’s a direct correlation to what employment opportunities are out there.”

There were 368 total juvenile arrests between March 11 and May 21, compared to 660 over the same timeframe last year But as the summer arrives and Mayor John Cooper’s stay-at-home orders are eased, Matthews said it’s logical to expect an uptick. .

Matthews pointed out that there was a slight decrease in juvenile crime last year, which was the second year of Opportunity NOW. At the town hall last week, Matthews was joined by Opportunity NOW Direct Ellen Zinkiewicz, who coached young people and family members about the importance of summer work and how to pursue the jobs the group has identified.

“The research shows the earlier you start working, the higher your earning potential,” Zinkiewicz said. “Working early translates to more economic security later in life.”

Nashville has seen a decrease in juvenile crime during the pandemic. There were 368 total juvenile arrests between March 11 and May 21, compared to 660 over the same timeframe last year.

Matthews said much of that drop is for the obvious reason that teenagers have been quarantining and not out getting into trouble. But as the summer arrives and Mayor John Cooper’s stay-at-home orders are eased, Matthews said it’s logical to expect an uptick. And that’s why summer employment will be more crucial than ever.

“You are going to have fewer total jobs and more competition from adults who maybe are out of work, and you have the city organization facing an uncertain budget,” Matthews said. “It’s more important than ever that young people know the value of summer work and also that there are safe summer job opportunities for youth in our community.”