Somerville Receives Smallest “Pocket Change” Grant in Statewide Competition

By Claire Felter
BU News Service

The city of Somerville is scaling down its plans for an initiative to reduce unemployment among low-income youth after winning a significantly smaller grant than it applied for through a statewide competition.

The 1.8 million dollar Working Cities Challenge, which was put on by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston but funded by other partners, asked cities to write proposals that utilized collaboration across sectors and set out to help low-income populations. The competition targeted smaller cities in Massachusetts with populations greater than 35,000, median family incomes below the state median level of approximately $63,000 and poverty rates above the state median level of 10.7 percent.

The twenty eligible cities ranged from New Bedford in southern Mass. to Pittsfield near the western border to Lynn just north of Boston. All twenty cities considered eligible applied, but the six to win grants were Lawrence, Fitchburg, Holyoke, Chelsea, Salem, and Somerville.

Somerville received the smallest grant amount at $100,000, although the city requested the highest amount possible – $700,00. The seed award will span one year as compared to the three-year grants that four other winners received.

The initiative, named “The Pocket Change: Creating A Somerville That Works For All,” will combine soft-skill training sessions with micro-job opportunities. The training sessions will show local youth successful methods for landing a full-time job while the micro-jobs will provide participants with some income while they prepare for a more permanent position.

The “Pocket Change” initiative is reminiscent of the now nationwide jobs program, Year Up, which began in 2000 and provides job training and corporate internships for young adults from disadvantaged communities.

Amanda Maher, Economic Development Specialist at the Mayor’s Office of Strategic Planning and Community Development, is heading the smaller program in Somerville. Maher said research into this issue started long before the application process for the Working Cities grant.

“This all builds out of a process that has been going on for the last few years. The Mayor, back in 2011, put together the Jobs Advisory Council,” she said. “And it was actually a very similar process to what the Boston Fed wanted us to do, with bringing together public sector, private sector.” 

This forethought into tackling this portion of unemployment became an asset when sending in the application for the grant. Tamar Kotelchuck, the Boston Fed’s Program Manager for the Working Cities Challenge, said that the one of the goals of the competition was to support efforts that were already underway.

“We wanted to support cities in projects that they had already identified as priorities,” she said. “We wanted to know if it was something that they had truly been thinking about for awhile.”

Maher and her colleagues were also working off a 2013 study by the Commonwealth Corporation and Drexel University concerning teen employment in Massachusetts, which found that businesses wanted to hire locally but found that many applicants were lacking in the skills necessary for the job.

Now that Somerville has been awarded the grant, Maher said she will look to private sector employers to pinpoint which abilities applicants need the most help in improving. Then the city can bring in its nonprofit partners to carry out training or help participants enroll in certificate programs.

“Pocket Change” will be smaller than initially expected, though. Maher said that the estimated number of seventy-five people who could partake in the initiative has been scaled back to twenty or twenty-five young adults due to the smaller award amount.

They also originally planned to target four or five industries such as “green jobs” and retail, but Maher is now looking to make it a pilot program involving just one or two, likely including the healthcare sector.

Cambridge Health Alliance (CHA), a local network of hospitals and health centers, has already partnered with Maher for this initiative, offering to provide some of the necessary services like training for interviews and résumé critiquing. Kurby Gress, Manager of Temporary Services at CHA, said they could begin offering training as soon as within the next thirty days, and that ideally he would be able to place people into temporary positions through the program.

“They can get some job experience, a resume builder, get exposure to the workplace, get some confidence,” Gress said. “That’s probably one of the biggest hurdles.”

Although Somerville received the grant, other cities in Massachusetts are plagued with high rates of youth unemployment as well.

According to the 2012 American Community Survey by the United States Census Bureau, Somerville’s unemployment rate was 8.4 percent for 20 to 24 year olds. For those with a high school degree, the rate was 9.2 percent and for those with some college experience or an associate’s degree, 12.2 percent. Statewide, however, the rate of unemployment for the same age range was 12.6 percent.

The rate was also slightly higher than for high school graduates across the state.

Maher said that while she is working to effect a change in Somerville, she recognizes that the problem is not just a local one.

 “This isn’t a Somerville issue. It’s a Massachusetts issue. It’s a United States issue,” she said.

The unemployment rate across the country for 20-24 year olds was nearly 16 percent in 2012, according to the same American Community Survey. A report released by The Opportunity Nation coalition in October of last year shows that almost 15 percent of American youth aged 16-24 were neither working nor in school at the time of the study. According to United Nations data, the rates for both males and females are up significantly from where they were in 2006. 

Somerville Mayor Joseph Curtatone addressed the numbers in a January press release published by the city.

“Somerville’s unemployment rate remains below the state and national average,” he said. “But for the individuals in our community who are struggling to find employment- including some of our younger workers – all that matters is whether they can get the one job they need.”

Maher echoed the Mayor’s statement, saying that the focus of the program will be on the individual – or the twenty individuals.

“If, at the end of our pilot program, we have ten kids in the process of completing a certificate program and ten kids who have been placed into employment,” she said, “to us that’s a major success.”