Public Oversight Roundtable on Washington’s FY 2010 Summer Youth Employment Program

Chairperson Brown and other members of the committee: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) operated by the DC Department of Employment Services (DOES).  As you know, this program has been a city priority for many years.  There’s little disagreement about the value of the program:  providing employment opportunities for District youth, helping them build skills and gain experience, and giving them the chance to earn some money.   However, there are concerns about the program’s administration and whether it lives up to its purpose.

A successful summer jobs program is the result of a lot of hard work and careful attention to multiple details: 

  • Finding appropriate sites to host young people—and making sure there are enough sites for the number of youth projected to participate 
  • Ensuring that supervisors at those sites are clear on the expectations associated with the program and receive appropriate support and oversight
  • Ensuring that young people are prepared for their summer job through orientation and ongoing support
  • Matching young people to job sites based on the sites’ needs and the young people’s skills and interests
  • Administrative concerns, such as registering youth, timekeeping and payroll

Carrying out these tasks requires careful planning, skilled staff, a smoothly functioning administrative structure, and sufficient time and resources.  Despite the Department of Employment Services’ best efforts, it has not been able to run a consistently high-quality summer jobs program.  Although the 2008 SYEP was a very public fiasco, it would be a mistake to assume that problems first appeared that year and have only occurred in the current administration.  Former Councilmember Schwartz held a youth employment roundtable in 2007.  Numerous witnesses testified about problems that are familiar today:  youth getting paid to do nothing; difficulty assigning youth to appropriate sites; difficulty with timekeeping and payroll; and difficulty in reaching DOES staff to resolve problems.   Of course, every summer there are also youth and host sites who are satisfied and happy with their experience.   This should be the norm, but it is not. 

There are numerous factors that hinder DOES/OYP from running a consistently high-quality program, but the staffing and administrative practices of OYP appear to be a major barrier and provide a key leverage point for improving the program in the future.  OYP does not appear to have enough staff and/or staff with the appropriate experience and qualifications.  Judging by the program’s history, this has been the case for some years.  Yet, if the program is a priority, why is this situation allowed to continue?  I do not mean this as a naïve or rhetorical question.  I understand there are all sorts of complicating factors in a bureaucracy relating to hiring and letting staff go in order to assemble the best team.  But really, why can’t we do better?   The summer jobs program is a predictable event.  It is not a surprise that every summer the city operates this program—we can foresee that the same problems will occur again and again unless we make some changes. 

Part of the problem with the staffing and administration of the program is insufficient attention to program quality.   In turn, this is related to, though not wholly dependent upon, the size of the program

  • The size of the program.  Every summer, DOES and the Office of Youth Programs (OYP) have to dramatically ramp up their operations in a short period of time to run a jobs program that is exponentially larger than any of their other jobs programs.   This is not an insurmountable problem but appears to be a major challenge for the agency, making it more likely that logistical concerns (assigning youth to job sites, making sure payroll works and so on) will swamp quality concerns.
  • Insufficient attention to quality.  Whatever the program’s size, DOES and OYP need to ensure the following:
    • Youth have the appropriate hard and soft skills for their assigned job sites, with orientation and support throughout the summer.
      • This requires developing several categories for youth participants, identifying youth who are basically work-ready, those who need some coaching, training and mentoring, and those who need extensive training and support to succeed in a workplace.  Younger participants (14- and 15-year-olds) probably need their own track appropriate to their own developmental and enrichment needs (and also not running afoul of child labor laws).
    • Job sites are prepared for youth participants, with appropriate supervision and work plans for youth, and support and oversight for the job sites.
    • Efficient managerial and financial systems to handle registration, job site assignment, timekeeping, payroll, and troubleshooting.

I don’t want to scapegoat OYP staff.  I believe hardworking OYP staff members want to do their best.  Other factors affecting the quality of the program include the following:

  • The general state of the economy, affecting the ability of outside job sites (both private and nonprofit) to host youth
  • The program’s current funding structure and design: The agency places youth in job sites but relies on the sites’ own staff and resources to design a summer work plan for the participants and supervise them.  For sites that only take one or two youth, this is probably not an issue.  For those that employ more youth, however, it can be a real burden on the agency and reduce the quality of the experience for the youth.  It could be particularly problematic in the case of government agencies that are mandated to accept youth, whether or not the agency wants them, is prepared for them, or has work for them. 
  • Mission creep.  The program appears to have multiple goals:
    • Preparing young people for the work world
    • Keeping young people off the streets and out of trouble
    • Providing income for young people and their families

To some degree, these goals inevitably overlap.  A young person who is working is gaining valuable skills and contacts, less likely to engage in risky behavior, and earning money they can use for themselves or their families.  But the “out of trouble” and “income” goals can dilute the effectiveness of the employment goal.  A program primarily centered on employment will focus on the quality points I outlined above.  If the goal expands to include keeping young people occupied to reduce crime and to provide them with additional cash, the quality points become less important as long as the youth are “off the street” and getting paid. 

To sum up, I believe that most in the city agree that the SYEP is worth doing.  For years, the city has taken the important step of prioritizing summer jobs for youth, but it has not backed that up with a commitment to quality.  The city has focused on the size and symbolism of the program, overshadowing the practical steps and details necessary to make it successful.   It doesn’t make sense to run a program that does not achieve its goals.  The city should either get the program right or stop doing it.