Gateway to Opportunity Gives Young Mainers Memorable Summers

Summer jobs are an important source of income, structure and self-esteem for young Mainers, but these opportunities are increasingly hard to come by. Indeed, the unemployment rate for Maine youth between the ages of 16 and 19 is more than three times the overall rate. Low-income teens are disproportionately affected by this shortage: national research has shown that they are up to 20 percentage points less likely to be employed when compared to their moderate- and high-income peers. And young people aren’t the only ones hurt by the lack of summer jobs. These early work experiences serve as important training experience for students preparing for the full-time job market. They also help employers fill current vacancies and help address the long-term challenge of finding qualified future workers — a critical issue in Maine.

The partners behind the new summer youth employment initiative Gateway to Opportunity (G2O), want to change this by offering vulnerable teens in Portland the chance to work. The idea for G2O came from stakeholders of the Greater Portland Workforce Initiative, including the Southern Maine Youth Transition Network and Portland ConnectED, who identified the need for expanded summer youth employment opportunities in the Portland area. A number of youth, education and employment-focused partners helped to design and implement the pilot program, and Portland Public Schools and the City of Portland provided input as well. Goodwill Industries of Northern New England will serve as the lead implementation partner for the initiative, allocating staff and the necessary infrastructure. The John T. Gorman Foundation has provided the project with startup funding of $95,000.

The team behind G2O was inspired by an emerging body of research confirming that summer employment can lead to positive outcomes for vulnerable young people, such as increased school attendance, better test scores and stronger work readiness skills.

“Summer youth employment initiatives offer benefits in both the short- and long-term. They provide young people with the opportunity to work as a team to meet a need in the community, while eventually preparing them to enter the workforce full-time. That’s great for Maine employers, too,” explains Sara Gagné-Holmes, senior program associate at the John T. Gorman Foundation.

This summer, G2O will offer 20 young people stipend-carrying placements at several sites within community organizations in the Greater Portland area. In keeping with best practices in summer youth employment initiatives, the youth in G2O will work in small groups on service projects that they can complete over the course of the program. That project could be developing a mobile app, a short movie or another creative product that benefits the community at large.

“We want the kids in the program to have the satisfaction that comes from accomplishing a goal. And since they will be working as part of a team on the projects, they’ll be gaining work readiness skills,” says Dave Wurm, the program manager of workforce services at Goodwill Industries of Northern New England. He believes young people in the program will also benefit from learning about different career options, helping them eventually transition to the full-time workforce.

G2O is also being supported by the University of Maine’s Maine Economic Improvement Fund. With this additional funding, undergraduates will be placed at each of the sites to help work with and mentor the young people in the program. Participants will also be able to attend on-campus events at the University of Southern Maine, offering them a close-up look at college life that is meant to help them envision higher education in their own futures.

The first partner to sign on to host G2O participants is the OPEN Project of The Opportunity Alliance. It’s an effort that is focused on empowering young residents of Parkside, the most diverse and densely populated neighborhood in Portland. For their final project, G2O participants at the OPEN site will work on a community arts project focused on race and the immigrant and refugee experience that can be shared with fellow residents. The project promises to enrich the lives of those in the neighborhood, well after the summer is over.