This week we’re bringing you a guest post from Martha Ross, a fellow at the Brooking Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Her newest paper Youth Summer Jobs Programs: Aligning Ends and Means, which she co-authors with Richard Kazis, takes an important look at the intentions and outcomes of summer youth employment programs from a national perspective. Read on for highlights of their work!
Summer jobs programs for youth have experienced an upsurge of investment since the 2007-2009 recession and the associated spikes in unemployment among young people. The well-documented drop in teen and young adult employment rates has raised concerns that it is becoming more difficult for young people to find pathways into the labor market, particularly for African-American and Latino teens living in neighborhoods with fewer job opportunities. Summer jobs programs offer a paycheck, employment experiences, and other organized activities in the service of multiple goals: increasing participants’ income, developing young people’s skills and networks to improve their job prospects, and offering constructive activities to promote positive behavior. The District of Columbia is one of a handful of jurisdictions that retained their summer jobs programs after the loss of dedicated federal funding in the late 1990s with the passage of the Workforce Investment Act.
Summer jobs programs are often one of the most high-profile youth initiatives of a given jurisdiction. They typically last about six weeks and provide work opportunities to teens and young adults who otherwise might struggle to find jobs. Recent research finds that summer jobs programs have positive effects: reducing violence, incarceration, and mortality and improving academic outcomes.
But a strong program does not automatically follow from good intentions. Program design and implementation carry the day and determine the results. Although the research is encouraging, it is not robust enough to support generalized statements about program effectiveness, and it has not yet conclusively linked summer jobs programs to improved employment outcomes.
Summer jobs programs are complex endeavors to design and deliver within a very compressed time frame. No matter how dedicated the organization and staff operating the program, the demands of recruiting, assessing, placing, monitoring, and paying so many young people at one time are significant. In the absence of agreed-upon standards and best practices, quality is likely to vary considerably—both between cities and within a city, depending on the worksite or partner organization helping to run the program.
In a new paper, Youth Summer Jobs Programs: Aligning Ends and Means, my co-author Richard and Kazis and I assert that we need better answers to some fundamental questions: how much should we reasonably expect from a summer jobs program? For whom are the impacts the greatest? What are the critical program elements to improve a young person’s skills and job prospects?
Based on interviews and a scan of the literature, we identified a core set of practices that support high-quality programs, divided into two categories.
- Recruiting employers and worksites and sustaining their participation to provide the maximum number of job opportunities.
- Matching young people with age- and skill-appropriate opportunities, differentiating by age, work readiness, and youth interests so that no one goes to a workplace unprepared to succeed.
- Preparing young people to succeed and learn new skills by providing training and professional development on work readiness and other topics, including financial capability.
- Supporting youth and supervisors to maximize learning and development by structuring the job placement and monitoring progress over the summer to address problems that arise and provide guidance to supervisors on working with young people.
- Connecting the summer program to other educational, employment, and youth development services so that the summer program both feeds into and draws from other community resources.
Capacity and infrastructure
- Ensuring sufficient staff capacity and capability to deliver critical program elements at a high level of quality, executing with clear roles, sufficient staff training, and coordination across partner organizations.
- Deploying information technologies to improve program management and communication among partners and participants, including information management systems to streamline enrollment and job matching and to strengthen tracking and evaluation.
- Simplifying coordination and strengthening training through partnership management tools, such as sample job descriptions and assessment tools that help structure the work experience and support youth and worksite supervisors.
We concluded that it is harder than most people think to run a high-quality summer youth employment program and to measure progress towards the goal of helping young people improve their skills and job prospects. We also concluded that it is both easy and unwise to expect too much of a summer jobs program, especially for the most vulnerable and unprepared young people, who typically need more intensive and longer-term services. Ideally, the current wave of energy and investments in summer jobs programs around the country will inspire and empower cities to step back from the day-to-day management of a summer jobs program and assess their program design and organizational capacity against the ultimate goal: helping young people succeed in their communities and in the workplace.