Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Jada Gonzales was working at a sandwich shop when her mom alerted her that the city of Albuquerque was hiring. The Albuquerque Academy junior had heard some good reviews from another young city employee and decided to swap sandwiches for a job in the city’s therapeutic recreation program.
That summer position segued into a year-round gig, and 17-year-old Jada now spends her weekday afternoons working with kids at either a local elementary school or community center, including a more specialized one-on-one assignment helping a boy who has autism.
The job, she said, has reinforced her long-term career goal of working with kids in some capacity – perhaps as a pediatrician – and made her more aware of others’ struggles.
“I think it’s been really good and helped me grow in a lot of ways – mentally and emotionally,” she said.
The city is now looking for some additional Jadas.
It has begun its annual youth hiring blitz and this year aims to get 1,200 people age 14-25 on the city payroll.
About half of the hires stay on board year-round, while the other half fill the city’s seasonal needs – mostly at swimming pools and community centers.
City employment is a popular first job in Albuquerque, though officials say applications have waned a bit this year. Cristin Chavez-Smith, who manages the city’s Community Services Division, said she suspects that COVID-19 is partly responsible and hopes that the state’s falling infection numbers will spur more families to explore the city’s youth employment, including via a job fair Saturday.
“We’re really hoping that the job fair kind of kicks that into higher gear,” she said. “As with the rest of the country and the world, hiring is a little slow right now.”
Most teens working for the city will make minimum wage, currently $11.50 per hour, though some positions may pay more.
Jada, who said she’s putting her paychecks toward future college expenses, said she might be able to earn more money elsewhere, but she values her current position. Her supervisors have been flexible – she took a few months’ break during basketball season – and she said interacting with kids makes the job fun.
“It just brightens your day sometimes, and you just get to see how they open up to you and how they start to trust you,” she said. “And it makes you feel good.”
While the city’s youth jobs initiative focuses on people up to age 25, a large portion of the hires are still high-school age. The city has hired an average of 521 kids ages 14-17 annually for the past decade, according to data provided to the Journal.
Chavez-Smith said city managers often attempt to ease younger employees into professional life. The hiring process will still include background checks and drug testing, but may involve a group interview instead of a formal one-on-one session. Training, meanwhile, “is huge for us,” she said. For recreation leaders it could cover such ground as how to spot child abuse, as well as such basic concepts as how to dress for work. As for discipline, Chavez-Smith said she encourages her management team to exercise some patience and take a coaching approach.
“I don’t see a ton of value in someone messing up or (maybe) showing up late, and just firing them,” she said. “I don’t know that that’s a great lesson.”
Chavez-Smith said many adult employees in her department, including herself, actually started with the city as teenagers. She started at 16 as a playground recreation leader. Though she had once contemplated becoming a teacher or counselor, she ultimately returned to the city after graduating from college. She worked her way up the ranks and now oversees community centers, the city’s before-and-after school programs, meal sites and more.
Jared Frederick, 18, eventually wants to get a culinary degree and open his own bakery – a far cry from his current job as a city lifeguard. But he’s enjoyed lifeguarding so much that he’s now entering his fourth year keeping watch over swimmers at the Betsy Patterson Pool at Sandia High School. He said the job has taught him more about responsibility and collaboration – not to mention some useful lifesaving skills.
But it’s also, quite simply, fun.
“It’s a great job – even as a beginner if you’re just learning how to work,” said the Sandia High senior. “The environment is really friendly. We try to make sure everybody feels welcome here.”