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Why It’s So Important that Cities Run Summer Youth Employment, Even During a Pandemic

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Students at a town hall (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

Early work experience — such as that provided by summer jobs — can keep teens out of trouble, improve soft skills, and build strong pathways for their futures. Based on this belief, over the past several decades policymakers and business leaders have joined together to create summer youth employment programs across many U.S. cities. Generally, these programs provide youth age 14 to 24 the opportunity to work 20-25 hours per week for a six-week period from early July through mid-August and earn the minimum wage. 

Yet the economic disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic placed summer jobs programs in jeopardy at the exact moment when they are needed the most. The unemployment rate for youth age 16 to 19 years nearly tripled from 11.0 percent in February to 31.9 percent in April, as many businesses that employ youth such as retail, eating, and drinking establishments were forced to shut down to reduce the spread of infection. At the same time, some cities initially canceled their summer jobs program—much to the dismay of youth and their advocates.

New York City, which typically employs upwards of 75,000 youth each year, recently reinstated its program after a grassroots movement led by youth pushed the mayor to restore funding and get more creative given social distancing protocoles.

Research clearly demonstrates that summer jobs programs develop skills among youth that lead to better long-term criminal justice, academic, and employment outcomes. Our multi-year evaluation in Boston funded by William T. Grant Foundation shows that summer jobs programs lead to significant boosts in community engagement, social skills, job readiness skills, work habits, and college aspirations that are linked to the long-term improvements in crime, school, and employment outcomes. And it’s not just Boston—studies conducted in Boston, Chicago, and New York have shown that summer jobs programs lead to a 30 to 40 percent reduction in violent and property crime and a 10 percent lower probability of incarceration. Participants also increase their school attendance and have a greater likelihood of passing statewide exams needed to graduate from high school.

For opportunity youth -- young adults neither in school or the labor market -- age 19-24 years, both employment and wages were higher one year after participating in the program relative to their peers who did not participate in the program. Despite a price tag of roughly $2,000 per participant, these positive long-term impacts mean that the benefits of summer jobs programs certainly exceed the costs.

Summer jobs programs provide both greater opportunity as well as income support for low-income youth and their families. Survey data show that roughly half of youth participating in the Boston program indicate that they help pay one or more household bills and one in five report that they are saving for college tuition. Moreover, our evaluation has shown that the impacts appear to be greater for Black and brown youth from low-income city neighborhoods.

Take José for example. Jose had been part of the summer jobs program through the Boston Private Industry Council since his sophomore year of high school, starting with a community-based camp job his first summer. The next year, he landed a job as a customer service representative at a local branch of a large bank. His supervisor was so impressed by his professionalism and bilingual Spanish and English skills when it came to assisting customers that he hired José back the following summer, after which José stayed on part-time while in college. 

This is just one example of the types of transformative experiences that thousands of youth encounter very summer through the program.

Yet, due to the global pandemic and economic recession, city and state governments have faced steep budget shortfalls and large logistical hurdles to funding their summer jobs programs this year. Several cities have developed a range of options to preserve as much of the summer youth experience for as many youth as possible. Some, like in New York City, are still just starting as July turns to August.

In designing this summer’s programming, we should aim to replicate the skills that youth typically gain from having a summer job that we know are linked to better outcomes down the road. It’s likely that cities will need to develop multiple tracks to employ the same number of youth and provide greater flexibility as re-opening conditions unfold.

In Boston, Major Walsh invested an additional $4.1 million to fund four new tracks including “earn and learn” opportunities where youth take college courses for credit, virtual internships using an established platform and ready-made projects, a peer-to-peer COVID-19 campaign to educate youth about COVID-19 and safe practices, and a new public works program to engage youth in helping to maintain parks and other outdoor recreational spaces.

The summer months are often cited as a crucial time to engage our youth in positive ways, and that is especially true for the summer of 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic presents new and profound challenges and we must rethink how to adapt workforce development to this new reality. This summer provides an opportunity for us to understand what works with an eye towards shaping year-round programs that start in the fall. For our cities, continuing to invest in youth throughout the current crisis will help create a strong workforce that continues to pay dividends years down the road.

Alicia Sasser Modestino is an Associate Professor in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University. She studies youth labor markets and is currently leading a multi-year evaluation of the summer jobs program in Boston funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. On Twitter @SasserModestino.

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