The Washington Post

How to Fix the Washington Summer Jobs Program

It's Groundhog Day in August: another hot summer and another contentious D.C. Council hearing on the summer jobs program. It played out again a few weeks ago when the council rejected Mayor Adrian M. Fenty's last-minute request to extend the program beyond the six weeks authorized in the FY 2010 Budget Support Act. Never mind that the seven-day extension would add $4 million to a program already over budget by about $7 million.

It's time to break the cycle. Summer jobs are not the only way to connect young people to jobs and training, and they shouldn't be the sole policy focus. We also need to make our summer jobs program manageable and predictable. That means targeting enrollment for a specific number of young people, making quality -- not size -- the most important benchmark and putting improved management and financial systems in place. Then we can broaden the debate about youth employment to include year-round programs, internships, and career and technical education at the K-12 and post-secondary levels.

  • That there are enough job sites for participants, and that each job site has a clear work plan vetted by DES. No one gets paid for doing nothing or gets make-work assignments, and all participants learn new skills.

  • That youth are matched to their job sites based on an assessment of their hard and soft skills. Some sites want to provide basic skills enrichment and work-readiness training. Others, usually private-sector employers, want someone who is ready to go and needs less coaching.

  • That there are clear standards for youth and job sites, and that both receive orientation, support and oversight throughout the summer.

  • That managerial and financial systems are sufficient to handle registration, job site assignment, timekeeping, payroll and troubleshooting. Every summer, Employment Services has to dramatically ramp up its operations in a short time. This is not an insurmountable problem but appears to make it more likely that logistics swamp quality concerns.

Rather than building a program around unlimited enrollment, the city should deliver on its promise to provide meaningful work opportunities and help young people build skills -- and stay within its budget.