Finding the First Job Assisted by the NYA -1938
Connecting the boy or girl with the job is one of the objectives of the NYA work program. Because of their lack both of education and of work experience, young people from relief families have even greater difficulties than other groups of youth in finding work.
Many doors are naturally closed to the average NYA youth who can say no more to prospective employers than that he has gone only to grade school and that he has never held a steady job. It is unfortunate for any young person to be out of school and jobless; it is in many ways most critical for relief youth because they have the least resources for the use of enforced idle time.
The girl who traditionally "helps out at home" is less a problem than the boy who has no place to go, no money to spend for any kind of training, few chances for simple recreation.
We found that NYA supervisors all over the country consider it an integral part of their work to make contacts with potential employers of youth labor, telling them about the actual work NYA young people are doing on projects and about the training many of them are receiving on their own free time as well as on the job, asking that NYA youth capable of filling beginners' jobs be given their chance even though their records of schooling and experience may fall below preconceived employment standards.
In a number of States supervisors keep progress records of NYA workers so that the youth themselves may have a concrete picture of their own work and so that possible employers of youth may have a work record on which to base their selection of new employees. In two and one-half years the NYA work program has not become widely known.
Many people with whom we talked in cities either had never heard of NYA or had only some vague idea about student aid. We found employers in small communities more conversant with NYA work and consequently more willing to accept it as job experience.
In some communities, NYA supervisors had thoroughly canvassed every employment opportunity for young people and constantly reminded employers of this supply of boys and girls who were receiving work experience and on-the-job training as well as additional instruction on their own time. The administrative personnel of NYA are limited.
We met supervisors everywhere who not only oversee work projects, but in addition conduct free-time training classes and try to open up any possible job opportunities they can discover for relief youth.
We talked with one boy who had never held any sort of job before NYA work. "I feel pretty sure now that I can hold a job if I get a chance," he said. "That's the most this work means to me, except, of course, the money I earn. It's easier to keep on looking for a job once you've had one."
There are undoubtedly a great number of youths who, because they have worked only a little if at all, have lost all confidence in their ability to work. We felt that many of these boys in their part-time NYA jobs gained assurance that, granted the opportunity, they could fill jobs. Many young people have become discouraged by the constant turndowns they have met when searching for jobs.
One NYA boy reported that he had made the rounds of 20 different factories in one week looking for a job. In seven instances, he was peremptorily told to get out before he had a chance to ask for work.
At several other factory employment windows, he was greeted by placards saying: "No workers needed." In only a few instances did he have the chance of even talking to anyone about a job.
Perhaps it is economically a waste of time for employers or their representatives to talk with job-seekers when there are no jobs; it is not difficult, however, to imagine the discouragement and frustration which youth feel when it is hard even to get the chance to ask for a job.
"Yes, some of the young people are sullen and have chips on their shoulders," a NYA foreman told us. "And lots of them change. I think that's because even with the part-time work they have on NYA they feel that there is some place in this world where their work really can be used."
One State director stated his policy on "youth and jobs" by saying: "We can't and we don't tell NYA youth that if they only work hard and have good intentions they'll be sure to find jobs. That simply isn't true today. What we do tell them is that we believe the more skilled they are the better their chances will be to get jobs.
If a girl, for example, can type only 30 words a minute, we tell her that 50 is necessary before she can compete with many others who are looking for the same kind of work she wants."
There are relief youth who, like other youth, have unrealistic approaches to employment—girls and boys, for example, who cannot spell, whose vocabularies are limited, yet who have as their immediate objective finding jobs as private secretaries, newspaper reporters, or movie scenario writers.
By giving them a chance to get more accurate vocational information, NYA sometimes helps these youth to pin their hopes on less romantic and possibly more attainable work goals.
We heard in almost all parts of the country of a growing belief on the part of young people that jobs can be obtained only through pull. "You've got to know someone to get a job," is the common statement.
There is no question that this feeling has some justification. Employers are besieged by relatives and friends with requests to give their sons and daughters work. Relief youth have few avenues of personal approach to sources of employment. NYA administrators help in making contacts which relief youth cannot make for themselves.
In NYA there is undoubtedly a residue of the least employable youth. Sometimes they are the physically handicapped. We noted in several States that NYA administrators definitely tried to provide project work aimed to give this group experience and training in specialized fields in which they might become economically self-sufficient.
In Milwaukee, the highest amount of placement in clerical positions has been from a group of physically handicapped boys and girls. In this instance, special efforts were made by NYA supervisors to reach possible employers and to ask them not to turn down a qualified youth merely because he walked on crutches, provided that handicap would not interfere with performance of his job.
Then there is the boy or girl who gets a reputation in his community for shiftlessness or dishonesty. We heard of a number of instances in which youth in this category have done good NYA work.
The supervisor has tried to help them to rehabilitate themselves in their communities. One of these "success stories" is about a boy who was certified for relief in a small Middle-Western town.
The NYA supervisors assigned him to work at a school ground improvement project. The superintendent of the school objected, saying that he knew the boy, wouldn't trust him, didn't want him around.
The supervisor asked that the boy be given a trial, pointing out that the youth was a member of the community, would continue to be, and that he needed this work.
The boy got along without any trouble. After six months, the school superintendent recommended him for a job in a local grocery store. He has been working there more than a year now and his employer is pleased with him. Employment in domestic service is one field that could be greatly developed.
Many girls do not want to face a life of living in someone else's house, of working long, dreary, lonely hours every day. If the woman who complains that modern girls are spoiled because they will not become maids would ask herself honestly whether she would prefer to work eight hours a day in a factory or twelve or fifteen hours in a kitchen, over laundry tubs and scrubbing pails, she might understand the usual reaction.
Youth cannot be censured for lack of ambition in one breath and in the next condemned for not wanting work that is dead-end. According to the American tradition, which is still strongly felt, a maid is either a Negro or a foreigner. "A good German girl," "a strong Swedish girl," "an Irish cook," are almost all one hears in American speech describing household help.
When immigrants streamed through Ellis Island, the kitchen was often their introduction to American life. There the new language and the customs of the new country could be learned.
But the feeling behind this job often was "I'll work here until I can save enough to help to buy a farm"—or start a store or get some other foothold. "My children will be Americans and they will not do what I am doing."
These children and their children have inherited this feeling. Can they be asked to change it? There is no getting around the fact that domestic service in the United States carries with it, whether it should or not, a social stigma which the present generation of American girls would like to avoid.
We were in several communities where, we were told, the average wage for a housemaid was as low as $1.75 or $2.00 a week. In many, $5.00 was considered an excellent wage for a servant. To most girls the lack of freedom seems to be an even greater objection to housework than the low wages in many sections of the country.
The girl who works in the factory, the store, or the office can see "boyfriends" in the evening when she pleases. She may actually have less cash left at the end of the week than the girl who is doing housework, but most girls seem to think that even extra cash cannot compensate for limited opportunity to meet boys, to have friends, to be able to go somewhere with them, or at least have some place in which to see them besides a kitchen corner.
Housework requires many skills, or at least semi-skills. Girls from relief families sometimes express lack of confidence in their ability to do housework. Cooking, sewing, cleaning, caring for children, laundry, innumerable varied tasks, go into the occupation of domestic service.
Among the girls who will accept housework, many do not have the training for a successful pursuit of it. NYA homemaking centers can give girls who are interested in domestic service work experience which they can make use of in this field of employment.
Until standards of working conditions and general social attitudes in domestic service change, however, there will be no rush of young women into household work. NYA work projects cannot create jobs in private industry.
During the 1937–38 recession, the number of young people leaving NYA for private employment declined sharply, and in most States the quotas of youth certified for relief and waiting for NYA assignments far exceeded available allotments of NYA funds.
NYA work experience and training can help to give youth the background for beginners' jobs and can give depression-stymied youth confidence in their ability to hold jobs; and NYA supervisors can serve as a link between youth and employers; but the economic system must itself make room for these youth, most of whom show that they want work, before jobs and youth will balance.
Betty and Ernest K. Lindley, "Finding the First Job," in A New Deal for Youth: The Story of the National Youth Administration, New York: The Viking Press, 1938, pp. 109-114.