Time to think “Big” on Summer Jobs for Youth

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

In March I used this column space to make the case for reimagining our summer youth employment program as something larger than a subsidized job program offering New York City high school students a way to make a few dollars and stay out of trouble.

We know from research that public-funded summer youth employment programs are a good investment. The programs yield many benefits for those students fortunate enough to secure jobs. In addition to their potential for improving academic outcomes in the classroom and developing critically-important occupational skills, research indicates that students in such programs build strong work habits, self-confidence and perseverance.

But what if we took the current summer jobs program to another level?

What if we actually invested in the program so that every high school student in every borough who wanted a job would have one? And what if we designed the program to be an extension of the school year and part of classroom instruction? What if the program offered distinct, sequenced job experience for young people at different stages in their development? Finally, what if the program by design operated more as an internship offering students job experience aligned with their longer-term career objectives and interests?

With some vision, the city could create a program that could be a model for the nation.

Instead what we have with the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), is antiquated model that has changed very little over its 40 years of programming. To be blunt, SYEP has been on shaky ground for years. The main culprit is a lack of stable funding which has left the program totally at the mercy of annual budget negotiations between City Hall and the City Council. As such, the number of jobs slots are typically in doubt right up to start of the program.

SYEP is also flawed from a design standpoint. Job placements are on a lottery basis to any NYC youth, between ages 14 through 24, entirely based on availability. This ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach is counterproductive for older youth (ages 22 to 24) who are better served by a more standard transitional job initiative with the goal of placement in a permanent job.

It’s a shame neither the mayor nor City Council is thinking big when it comes to what we could achieve with a high quality SYEP.

At an April briefing on his FY2017 Executive Budget, Mayor de Blasio was asked if he supported expansion of the summer youth employment program to cover all high school students seeking jobs. After appearing a little surprised at the question, the mayor eventually said that while providing jobs for every high school student would be the “ideal,” program expansion was not a priority for the current budget.

In their FY2017 Preliminary Budget Response, the City Council called for an increase in funding for “Summer and Year-round Youth Employment” toward a goal of funding 100,000 summer jobs. This represents a doubling of the number of summer jobs funded in last year’s program, but phased in over the next three years.

And on Tuesday, two likely candidates for mayor in 2017, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz and Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jefferies, held a press conference at City Hall to call on the mayor to “fully-fund” summer youth employment programs in the city budget, due out July 1st.  

Citing high unemployment rates for city youth (it’s 29 percent), and few opportunities for young people to gain valuable work experience, Congressman Jefferies said his experience in the summer jobs program, as both a high school student and college freshman, made him a better person.

“That opportunity should be available to all young people across the five boroughs,” said Jefferies. “This is a crisis, and we’re here to say let’s deal with this because we have the resources to invest in our youth.”

It’s good to see growing support for expanding SYEP, though some of this is certainly politically motivated. The Council deserves credit for acknowledging shortcomings in the program and identifying ways to make improvements. Their preliminary budget calls for baselining funding, improving pre-placement assessments and reviewing ways to expand the program’s capacity to work with wider networks of private sector employers. 

Still, we need bold thinking when it comes to preparing our young people for the world of work. It’s time to end the false dichotomy between school and career prep and this is how to do it—by thinking big.

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