Tuesday, September 25, 2012

SYEP Oversight Re-Cap

The regular Wilson Building press corps was absorbed with transportation issues on Monday afternoon and as a result the general public and the advocacy community did not hear much about the first hearing conducted by the new Committee on Jobs and Workforce Development. While the lack of press attendance at the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) hearing was regrettable there are a lot of issues to report on here in the District and only so many reporters covering the local beat. Fortunately, DCAYA was at the hearing and we thought we would share some of the interesting tidbits.

Council Member McDuffie led the hearing off with a nod to the program’s troubled history stating, “The Department of Employment Services’ Summer Youth Employment Program is one of the most well known programs run by DOES. Unfortunately in the past it has been well known for the wrong reasons, but under the tenure of Director Mallory the program has definitely seen changes for the better.”  Council Member McDuffie’s statement was completely on point. We have come a long way since the days when 20,000+ program participants were warehoused in school cafeterias being paid either for doing nothing or not being paid at all. The amount of positive change that the program has experienced was a major theme of the hearing and many of the witnesses agreed with Council Member McDuffie that the program has indeed changed for the better.

However, a few witnesses at Monday’s hearing dared to ask the question: “Is simply being better good enough”? For instance, DCAYA pointed out in our testimony that while administratively the program has made important strides, it still lacks key programmatic elements that are consistently recognized as signs of quality in youth workforce programming. Among these: a clear mission/vision, defined evaluation metrics and developmentally appropriate program expectations and service delivery strategies that are clearly articulated and disseminated to program partners (in this case the work sites and supervisors).

Martha Ross from the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Project, who has written extensively about youth unemployment in DC, also pointed out several elements of the program that were causes for concern including confusion around primary and secondary program goals, uneven experiences among participants, and a lack of buy- in from the business community. Ross observed that SYEP’s goals of providing income, positive/enriching experiences for youth, and job placements with well-defined skill and employment-related outcomes are all worthy and not necessarily mutually exclusive.  However, in practice, the blending of the goals does tend to lead to “less of a true employment experience and more of an income supplement and developmental experience for the youth, which implies that the employer/host site is less of a supervisor and more of a camp counselor.”   

Council Member McDuffie also challenged the idea that “better” was synonymous with high-quality programming .He stated, “we cannot rest on our laurels” with regard to recent program successes and asked DOES some very tough questions about how they ensure program quality, track participant outcomes, and how SYEP fits into a larger youth workforce system.  This last point is especially important given the testimony of a few host sites, as well as DCAYA that, the six-weeks of programming offered by SYEP was NOT enough time to comprehensively teach young people the occupational skills and knowledge they need to succeed in the labor market. Perhaps one of the strongest articulations of this reality came from Tim Jones, the Teen Program Director from Martha’s Table. In describing the success the teenagers in his program achieved – 22 matriculated into a post-secondary option- Mr. Jones attributed this outcome more to participation in Martha’s Table’s year-round program than the six week SYEP. Paul Cohn from Cohn’s Kitchen testified that SYEP on its own, while valuable, is not enough: “we need greater investment and emphasis on ongoing year long programs.”

We wholeheartedly agree with Tim and Paul’s points. If we want our young people to successfully enter and thrive in the labor market, both in the short and the long term, experiences gained over the summer months must be better connected to year-round opportunities. The opportunities must be both school-based (e.g. academic remediation, internships and career and technical education) and non-school based (e.g. part-time jobs and even unsubsidized full time employment where appropriate). Perhaps Council Member McDuffie said it best as the very beginning of the hearing when he said, “looking at SYEP not just as a summer job for kids or as a way to keep them off the streets but rather but as an important peg in our education and workforce development programming will truly allow us to maximize the potential of SYEP.”

Overall the hearing provided a great overview of the many ways that DOES can continue to improve on the services it offers young people via SYEP and maybe more importantly it brought out SYEP's inherent limitation as a short-term employment program  While this blog post certainly did not capture every piece of testimony or every answer to every question we hope our little re-cap was helpful and We'll continue to work hard to make sure the city does not mistake "better" with good.

Copies of some of the testimony given at Monday’s hearing are available via the DCAYA website. You can watch the full hearing on the Council’s Website here.

To learn more about DCAYA's policy and advocacy around youth workforce development, please contact Policy Analyst, Anne Abbott.

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