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At a jobs fair, teenagers and young adults want to work for more than just pocket money

Thousands of Angelenos ages 16 to 24 packed the Los Angeles Convention Center Thursday, as part of an "Opportunity Fair" organized by a group of large employers including Starbucks, Papa Johns, Target, Taco Bell and TOMS.

Many of the young job-seekers who spoke to KPCC made it clear:  they're not looking to work for extra pocket money, but instead to be part of their family's economic survival. For 18-year-old Antwan Cooper, smartly dressed in a suit and tie, it was about supporting his mother and sister.

"They’re both working, but bills can be higher," he said. "So maybe the bill can be $350 on water. Water gets cut off. I want to be able to make sure the water is always on."  

"I need a job for me and my family," said 20 year-old Santiago Diaz as he waited for two pre-scheduled job interviews at the fair.  Diaz is studying natural sciences at Southwest College and dreams of becoming a sports surgeon. But in the meantime, he's got to support the aunt he's living with. 

"She’s starting to get really sick now, so she can’t work as much as she used to, so I’m trying to bring in a little extra money to help her," Diaz explained.

Twenty-year-old Ariel Flowers left the fair with two job offers in hand: from HMS Host, which operates eateries and shops at LAX, and Taco Bell.  She's a student at Long Beach City College who was laid off from another job at LAX.  Her mother recently got sick and is missing work, too. She's expected to help with household expenses. 

"They're like: 'You’re working now. You’re young adult now, so it’s time to get cracking.  You're  living here, using my water, using my gas so you gotta start paying.' So I help out," Flowers said. 

Researchers from the UCLA Labor Center released a report recently on young workers in Los Angeles County.  Looking at Census data and their survey of hundreds of workers, they found that nearly half (48%) of workers aged 18 to 29 in Los Angeles contribute to household expenses.

"We're debunking the myth that they’re really just using this income as spare change, to buy a car, to get a new phone or to buy clothes," said Janna Shadduck-Hernandez, one of the authors of the report.   "On the contrary, our study shows that only one percent spend their money solely on leisure. The rest are spending their money on all kinds of all kinds of household and personal items that are basic necessities."  

The report, entitled "I am a young worker," says young Angelenos earn less than previous generations while facing higher education costs, and the high cost of living in L.A. can make making ends meet particularly difficult for young workers.

Of course, not all the job-seekers at the opportunity fair were looking to support their parents. Some just wanted work experience, or to save money for college or a car ...or both. Seventeen-year old Robert Oceguera of Pasadena said he wants to go to Whittier College, so he'll need a car. 

"I think they’re going to give me work experience, and experience is the best teacher of all," said Oceguera. He'd just finished an interview with recruiters from Papa Johns. The pizza chain conducted more than 200 interviews at the fair. 

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti participated in a roundtable with company executives and community advocates.  He used the occasion to announce plans to expand the city's youth jobs program.  It's new goal is to hire 15,000 young people for year-round employment this year, up from 10,000 last year.  Some of the jobs are in city agencies, while others are with private employers. 

Janna Shadduck-Hernandez of the UCLA Labor Center said it's critical that people get their first jobs at a young age. 

"It marks your whole trajectory for your life," she said. "Having a stable income and being able to bring home a check that is meaningful will allow you to get your next job and the next job and build your career."