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Youth summer jobs programs: Aligning ends and means

Martha Ross and Richard Kazis

Summer jobs programs for young people have experienced a resurgence of interest and investment since the Great Recession, driven by concerns about high youth unemployment rates, particularly among low-income, black, and Hispanic youth.

Summer jobs programs typically last five to seven weeks and provide work opportunities to teens and young adults who otherwise might struggle to find jobs. They offer a paycheck, employment experiences, and other organized activities in the service of multiple goals: increasing participants’ income, developing young people’s skills and networks to improve their labor market prospects, and offering constructive activities to promote positive behavior. Most young people are placed in subsidized positions in the public and nonprofit sectors, although most cities also secure unsubsidized and private-sector placements, which typically come with higher skill and work-readiness requirements. Recent research finds that summer jobs programs have positive effects: reducing violence, incarceration, and mortality and improving academic outcomes.

But a strong program does not automatically follow from good intentions. Program design and implementation carry the day and determine the results. Moreover, research has not yet linked summer jobs programs to improved employment outcomes; evaluations to date are silent on effective program design; and, in the absence of agreed-upon standards and best practices, there is no guarantee of quality.

This paper is written to help clarify what is known about summer jobs programs and to provide information and guidance to city leaders, policymakers, and funders as they consider supporting larger and better summer efforts. Many jurisdictions are rebuilding their summer programs after a long hiatus that followed the end of dedicated federal funding in the late 1990s. Summer jobs programs are complex endeavors to design and deliver. Local leaders and administrators make a multitude of choices about program design, implementation, and funding, and these choices have a direct impact on quality and results. It is an opportune moment to assess the knowledge base and gaps about the operations and impacts of summer jobs programs.

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