Amber Barner

Amber Barner, 20, was hired by Wells Fargo Bank through the Hire One Youth summer jobs program. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun / July 5, 2012)

Amber Barner has had a summer job through the city's YouthWorks program seven times, every year since she was 14. But this time is different. This time her job will outlast the summer.

That twist comes courtesy of Baltimore's fledgling effort to encourage businesses to hire young adults directly through the city's program, rather than simply donate money to help cover their wages elsewhere.

Wells Fargo, part of YouthWorks' new Hire One Youth initiative, decided to hire at least one young person for a permanent job.

"It's my first time working at a bank," said Barner, 20, a teller at the company's Hamilton branch. "I love it."

Hire One Youth is a summer jobs program. But city workforce development officials also see it as a career jump-start, and they're encouraging employers to keep young hires on staff beyond August.

The goal is to give students and new graduates a path to full-time work — which is now hard to come by, particularly for young adults.

Just a third of Maryland teens worked last summer, compared with well over half in 2000, according to an analysis by the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston. Nationwide, the slump was just as severe. The center says the job market for teens isn't just rough, it's in a depression.

"The last two summers were the all-time record low for the country," said Andrew Sum, the center's director.

Various explanations have been offered for the sharp drop in teen employment, which began falling even before the recession: larger numbers of young people taking unpaid internships; more competition from older workers; a higher minimum wage.

Beyond that, companies don't do nearly as much summer hiring as they used to, Sum said.

"The whole summer job market has kind of collapsed on itself," he said.

And many cities scaled back or eliminated summer jobs programs during the past decade after federal funding set aside for such efforts ended. The exception was 2009, when federal stimulus money was available to help teens find jobs.

Baltimore officials, who helped other cities relaunch programs that year, say they have kept theirs afloat by piecing together funds. A substantial chunk of the roughly $6.4 million needed for YouthWorks this year comes from donations — big and small — with the rest covered by the city and state.

Far more is at stake than a bit of summer income. Job experience in teen years leads to work later, Sum said. The lack of it can have long-lasting negative effects.

"We're trying to build a strong workforce for the city of Baltimore," said Karen Sitnick, director of the Mayor's Office of Employment Development, which runs YouthWorks. "You have to provide a learning ground for young people. None of us learned how to work by reading about it in a book."

More than 5,300 residents ages 14 to 21 have jobs through YouthWorks this summer. That's up from the usual 5,000, though it's not enough to put all who wanted a job to work — more than 7,000 young people applied.

The typical participant works 25 hours a week at $7.25 an hour, the federal minimum wage, and started in late June. Many are at government agencies or nonprofits.

But nearly 300 — all 16 or older — are working directly for businesses as part of Hire One Youth. About 100 companies have signed on since Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake launched the campaign last fall.

It's an honest-to-goodness job, not charity, the city says.