Summer jobs programs: What do we know?

The well-documented drop in teen employment rates has raised concerns that it is becoming more difficult for teens to find pathways into the labor market, particularly for African-American and Latino teens living in neighborhoods with fewer job opportunities. Admittedly, for some teens working has been replaced by other enriching activities such as coding camps, SAT test prep, or travel—things that look good on a college application. But for others who might not be college-bound, the lack of early work experience can negatively affect employment and earnings later in life.

In response, policymakers and community leaders across the U.S. have increased their focus on summer youth employment programs (SYEP). In the past, summer jobs programs received dedicated federal funding to subsidize teen employment for low-income and minority youth as a way to increase family earnings, improve future employment prospects, and reduce crime. Today, city leaders are also hoping to use summer jobs programs as a lever to reduce inequality by teaching job readiness and financial capability skills, boosting academic and career aspirations, as well as promoting youth leadership and community engagement.

But what do we know about the potential for SYEPs to achieve these lofty goals?  After all, teens typically work in their summer job placements for only 20 to 25 hours per week over a six-week stretch. How much of a difference can such a short-term intervention be expected to make?  For whom are the impacts the greatest? Which features of the program are driving the outcomes?

A new Brookings paper, Youth summer jobs programs: Aligning ends and means, asserts that we need better answers to those questions than are currently available. While recent evaluations link summer jobs programs to reduced criminal activity and incarceration and to improved academic outcomes, the research base is not robust enough to support generalized assertions about program efficacy. Nor has existing research conclusively linked these programs to subsequent increases in employment and earnings.

We also need to know more about key program design and implementation choices necessary to ensure quality and achieve the desired outcomes. Fortunately, new research initiatives in New York City, Chicago, and Boston aim to do just that.

In Boston, I am leading a multi-year study with the Office of Workforce Development to shed light on not only on what works for summer jobs programs, but also on what works for whom, under what conditions, and why. Using a randomized control trial, we use a mixed-methods approach that combines self-reported survey data on short-term program effects with administrative record data on long-term outcomes. The survey data measure changes in job readiness skills, post-secondary aspirations, and social engagement during the summer, while the administrative data measure subsequent employment, academic achievement, and criminal activity after the program has ended.

By linking survey and administrative data, our study aims to understand the mechanisms at work by assessing which self-reported program impacts lead to improvements in long-term outcomes, and whether SYEPs differentially benefit disadvantaged youth. For example, are participants who report an increase in job readiness skills during the summer more likely to be employed one, two, or three years after participation? If so, is this impact greater for minority or court-involved youth?

Phase I of the research, The Potential for Summer Youth Employment Programs to Reduce Inequality: What Do We Know?,  has already been completed based on an initial pilot survey conducted with the City of Boston during the summer of 2015. The results indicate that in the short term, the Boston SYEP impacts teens in many of the ways that it was designed to. Participants in the program were much more likely to prepare a resume and cover letter or practice interviewing with an adult. They also raised their expectations of going to a four-year college and showed greatly improved attitudes toward their communities. In most cases, the largest gains were observed for black and Hispanic youth—particularly among males—suggesting that the program may have the capacity to reduce inequality across groups. These outcomes were significantly different from applicants who were not selected into the program.

Changes in Selected Job Readiness Skills for Boston SYEP Participants

Changes in Selected Job Readiness Skills for Boston SYEP Participants

Source:  Data for pre- versus post-survey participants reflect the author’s calculations based on survey data provided by the City of Boston, Office of Workforce Development.

Note:  *Indicates that the difference is statistically significance at the 10 percent level, ** at the 5 percent level, and *** at the 1 percent level.

While these initial results are encouraging, it’s unclear whether these short-term improvements achieved over one summer will result in increased employment, greater post-secondary education and training, and reduced criminal activity down the road. This is the central question that we need to answer for policymakers so that cities can use their limited resources more effectively to help the greatest number of youth succeed in their communities, their schools, and the workplace.