Chicago youth struggle with higher rates of unemployment post-pandemic, new report finds. ‘I need a job ASAP’

As Carmell Massey and Saul Rodriguez, both 18, get ready to graduate next month from Innovations High School, the teens said they are afraid of being out of school and jobless as they are having a hard time finding employment.

“I am struggling, and it’s now getting to me that I need a job ASAP,” Massey said.

Massey said he has a group chat with friends who are also looking for work, and they’ll all get on FaceTime and apply to different jobs together. But no one hears back.

This phenomenon is one closely examined in the Alternative Schools Network’s latest report on youth joblessness, which found that the rates of young people both out of work and not in school in Chicago are mostly slightly higher than before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report, “Uneven Recovery and Sustained Inequality After the COVID-19 Recession: Employment for Chicago’s Youth and Young Adults,” was commissioned by the education nonprofit and looks at youth ages 16 to 24 years old.

Released Wednesday, the report is based on U.S. census data from 2022, the most recent data available from the agency, and looks both at the overall youth unemployment rate and those who are both jobless and out of school.

According to the report, young people in Chicago experienced higher rates of unemployment than those in the suburbs and nationally. The highest rates of joblessness for young people ages 16 to 24 were on the city’s South and West sides.

In Chicago, there were more than 45,000 16- to 24-year-olds who were both out of school and jobless out of over 160,000 across Illinois in 2022. The number of overall jobless 16- to 19-year-olds also increased by about 16,000 between 2021 and 2022, reaching over 100,000.

Chicago has had a “longstanding issue with youth employment,” said Matthew Wilson, one of the report’s authors and associate director for economic and workforce development at the Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois at Chicago, the research arm behind the report.

“I think there’s a lot of connections with youth unemployment to some of the social conditions that we see across the city both spatially and racially,” he said.

The Great Cities Institute has done a number of reports for Alternative Schools Network, Wilson said, to try to understand broader trends on youth joblessness and how young people are positioned worse in the labor market now compared to historically, more recently looking at the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Young people of color are particularly affected by joblessness, according to the report. The percentage of Black people ages 16 to 19 in Chicago who were jobless and out of school went from over 9% in 2021 to over 17% in 2022. In 2019, that rate was 15%.

Older Black youth fared better in 2022, with the percentage of 20- to 24-year-olds jobless and out of school decreasing from 39.2% to 29.6% between 2021 and 2022, returning roughly to pre-pandemic levels.

Despite the employment gains among Black youth in their early 20s, the unemployment rate that year was still higher than those among young people who are white, at nearly 8%, and young people who are Latino, at more than 15%.

Massey said he wants to work full time after graduating and eventually apply to a trade school for engineering; Rodriguez said he wants to work to save up money while he figures out his next move. Both said they’ve sent in about 20 to 30 applications in the last month or so to try to secure employment post-graduation.

“I feel like people keep saying they are looking for someone with experience but at the same time it’s like, how do you expect us to get experience if you don’t offer us that experience,” Rodriguez said.

Alternative Schools Network is pressing lawmakers to provide $300 million in state funding for youth employment programs in Illinois. The Illinois Youth Investment Program, which was established in 2021 to help at-risk youth ages 16 to 24, said in a statement Wednesday the state Department of Human Services plans to invest $50 million per year for the next three years to fund summer jobs, longer-term employment and career development through private organizations and public entities such as schools and local government agencies.

Jack Wuest, executive director of Alternative Schools Network, said initiatives such as the Illinois Youth Investment Program need more funding. The goal is to provide at least 80,000 jobs to young people in the summer and throughout the school year, which also contributes to lower crime rates among the younger generation, he said.

“We want to keep reminding people this is a huge problem,” Wuest said.

Massey said he hopes legislators “see the numbers” and make a change.

“I want to work,” Massey said. “I want to be able to provide for myself and my future family if I end up having one. I don’t want to be just out here on the streets not doing anything with my life.”