New national service grads face dim job market
By Richard Wolf, USA TODAY
FALL RIVER, Mass. — The tattoo on Christian Berrios' right forearm says "Knowledge is Power." For a high school dropout in a city with shuttered textile plants and 18% unemployment, he needs all the knowledge he can get.
Berrios will graduate in June from YouthBuild, one of many national service programs that got an infusion of federal aid under last year's economic stimulus law. He'll get his high school equivalency degree as well as "green" construction skills to help him navigate a difficult job market.
"It's tough out there," says Berrios, 22, who wants a college degree in psychology. "I feel we got a better chance at scoring a better job."
The government's rapidly expanding role in national service will reach a turning point this month as thousands of AmeriCorps members added with stimulus funds start to enter the workforce, and struggling non-profits try to replace them.
The transition comes at a time when youth unemployment is more than twice the overall rate: 26% for teenagers, 16% for those ages 20-24. Applications to AmeriCorps, the main national service program, have nearly tripled. Many members want to go to college or keep their posts for another year.
In Florida, half of those hired with stimulus funds want to stay in the program. "They realize that there really are very few jobs," says Volunteer Florida CEO Wendy Spencer.
As the stimulus funds run out, a law passed by Congress in April 2009 is supposed to add hundreds of thousands of new service positions over the next seven years. The first grants are being made this month under the bipartisan Serve America Act, one of the rare measures that Democrats and Republicans have agreed on during President Obama's time in office.
"During a severe economic downturn, putting millions of Americans into productive work, not through the instrument of the government but through the innovation of non-profit and other community service organizations, is a smart way to tap the innovation and expertise of our people," says Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a top Republican advocate.
Not everyone agrees. "Jobs like these are only around as long as the federal government can afford to pay for them, and the truth is we can't afford them now," says Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
The national service program, begun by President Clinton in 1993, is a way station between volunteerism and private jobs. AmeriCorps members get annual stipends that average about $12,000, plus health insurance and help with college tuition. Part-time YouthBuild members earn about half that amount.
"It's about changing communities, solving problems. It's not all about jobs, jobs, jobs," says Karen Davis, California's secretary for service and volunteering.
The $862 billion stimulus law that Obama signed in February 2009 included $200 million to create 15,000 new AmeriCorps positions, a 20% increase. The $6 billion Serve America Act signed two months later is projected to take the program from 90,000 positions to 250,000 by 2017.
Still, proponents of national service say more is needed to create job opportunities for young people. Shirley Sagawa of the liberal Center for American Progress, the first managing director at the Corporation for National and Community Service, says an additional $1.5 billion could create 150,000 more full- and part-time service positions.