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

Chairperson (Michael) 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, but the last few years have been bumpy.

Budget over-runs for this program are getting to be a habit.  This is the second time in three years that the program has exceeded its authorized budget. The latest installment in this saga is a $12 million over-run of the program’s $22.7 million budget.  In 2008 and in the current year, the root cause of the over-run is the program’s size.  This year, rather than living within its means in a very tough budget environment, the Fenty administration chose to continue its policy of serving about 20,000 youth, knowing it did not have the budget to support that many participants.  While the goal of providing employment and skill-building opportunities to so many District youth is laudable, the program’s implementation is divorced from budgetary realities.  Nor has DOES shown that it has the capacity to plan and deliver a consistently high-quality program.  The administration appears satisfied with size and symbolism instead of a program that delivers on its promise to provide meaningful work opportunities and help young people build skills and gain experience.   In some cases, the summer jobs program does teach young people valuable skills, but sometimes it teaches them that they can get paid for doing nothing. 

SYEP’s problems stem from two basic issues: 

  • Insufficient attention to program quality.  
  • Program size.   Not that a smaller program is a panacea.  In previous years, smaller summer jobs programs have also had problems.   Former Councilmember Carol Schwartz held a roundtable in 2007 in which youth and nonprofit host sites detailed many of the same problems that surfaced after the program’s dramatic expansion in 2008:  administrative difficulties related to job site assignment, timekeeping and payroll, and little attention to quality. 

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

  • 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:  those who are 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). 
    • Employers who specify they want work-ready participants are assigned work-ready participants.  Less work-ready participants are assigned to sites that specify they have the interest and capacity to host young people with those characteristics.  Typically, private sector employers are assigned work-ready young people and youth-serving nonprofits are assigned youth that need more assistance.
  • There are enough job sites for the youth.  No youth are assigned to city agencies that don’t really want them or to any site without a clear work program.
  • Job sites and supervisors receive supervision and support over the summer.  Currently, if a youth has a positive experience, it is because of the host site’s initiative, not DOES’ standards or oversight.  Especially for private-sector employers, DOES should ensure that youth can access support from DOES or youth-serving nonprofits for problems that may interfere with their employment.  Employers may be willing to hire youth but probably do not want to serve in any kind of a social worker role. 
  • Managerial and financial systems are sufficient to handle registration, job site assignment, timekeeping, payroll, and troubleshooting.

This is a labor-intensive endeavor and it involves a lot more than assigning kids to slots like they’re widgets.   The Department of Employment Services and the Office of Youth Programs do not appear to have enough staff or staff with the appropriate skills and experience.  I know that there are smart, hard-working employees in DOES and OYP, but something is preventing them from operating a consistently high-quality program.   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?

Another frustrating aspect of the summer jobs program is that it draws attention and resources from year-round programs.   The number of youth in year-round programs is a fraction of the number in  summer jobs program.  Combined, the number of youth in year-round programs (including in-school and out-of-school youth) is typically less than a thousand.  Especially for young people in vulnerable situations, a summer program is simply not enough, especially when it is not connected in any systematic way to further education and training, whether through a DOES program, career and technical education in the public schools, or internships.  Connecting the summer jobs experience to further educational and employment options is also a smart choice for young people succeeding in school.  

The city can 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.  Youth employment programs can play a constructive role in young people’s lives: connecting them to the world of work, teaching interpersonal and occupational skills, and serving as a springboard for the future.  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.  Nor has it aligned the program with budgetary realities or a clear-eyed assessment of the city’s administrative capacity.   The city should either get the program right or stop doing it.