Gotham Gazette

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Despite Growing Need, City Struggles to Fill and Expand Programs Dedicated to Combating Youth Unemployment

Mayor Adams at a youth employment event (photo: Ed Reed/Mayor's Office)

The New York City Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD) is struggling to fill and expand career programs dedicated to unemployed, out-of-school youth, despite a dramatic increase in their numbers during the pandemic.

According to a recent report from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, unemployment among city residents aged 16 to 24 hit 17.9% in October 2022, a nearly 8 point increase from pre-pandemic 2019 levels. Those rates remain disproportionately high for people of color, with young adult unemployment among Asian New Yorkers more than doubling to 23.3%, surpassing the rate among Black youth. Unemployment was particularly high among young men 16-24, more than four times greater than the city's overall unemployment rate.

The comptroller's report put a magnifying glass over a population for which Mayor Eric Adams' concerns around economic recovery, underserved youth, and gun violence overlap. DYCD operates a number of job readiness and placement programs for youth, including two geared specifically toward out-of-school and out-of-work young adults (OSOW youth). Officials say such models can greatly improve chances of receiving a good paying job with an opportunity for advancement.

But while the numbers show the need is great, New York City government has had a difficult time recruiting participants to its programs. At a City Council oversight hearing on Monday, representatives for DYCD said they were laboring to fill the 2,300 available slots in their out-of-school and out-of-work programs let alone expand them, as members of the City Council suggested.

"While we know that the data does show that there's a significant need for opportunities for these populations, we also have seen on the ground that it's extremely challenging to recruit, engage and retain these young people," said Valerie Mulligan, DYCD's Deputy Commissioner of Youth Workforce Connect.

"Right now, we're focused on fully enrolling the slots that we do have, which is very challenging, and ensuring that the programs are successfully meeting the needs of youth that we're trying to reach," she testified to members of the Council's youth services and small business committees. The two committees were holding an oversight hearing and considering relevant legislation that would expand the city's Summer Youth Employment Program, particularly across city agencies.

There were an estimated 70,000-plus unemployed young people between 16 and 24 in New York City as of October, close to double pre-pandemic levels, according to the comptroller's report.

While DYCD is not the only agency focused on youth employment, it operates two of the only programs specifically targeting out-of-school and out-of-work young people, one of the most vulnerable and hardest to reach communities in the city.

One program, Advance & Earn, has two cohorts of 450 participants each that fill up every year, while the other program, Train & Earn, is not full yet, "but we're almost there," Mulligan said. Both programs offer job training, high school equivalency, and credentialing for out-of-school and out-of-work 16-24-year-olds. In February, DYCD opened a new Advance & Earn site in the Bronx, the borough with the highest unemployment and poverty rates.

But DYCD is not looking at expanding the number of slots, Mulligan said when asked about the high demand reflected in the city's unemployment data. "We're trying to balance making sure that the programs that we do have are really high quality, are really responsive to the needs of the young people that are in them, and that are attractive to young people."

The response didn't satisfy Council Member Althea Stevens, a Bronx Democrat and chair of the youth services committee, who co-chaired the hearing with the small business committee chair, Council Member Julie Menin, a Manhattan Democrat. "If we see these numbers rising, and you're saying now that the program isn't full, there's a disconnect," Stevens said, pressing for more information about how the agency was evaluating its program successes and needs.

"We're looking at how to make our programs as appealing to young people as possible, including considering what wages we pay through our programs, what types of trainings," Mulligan said.

She said part of the problem was that the pandemic created labor shortages that pushed traditionally minimum wage jobs to pay more, incentivizing young people to take short-term offers over more permanent career pathways in well-paying sectors. The economic instability and parallel housing insecurities exacerbated by the pandemic have made it harder to forgo immediate jobs for the time it takes to complete a DYCD program, she added.

Providers in those programs recruit participants through social media, traditional advertising, and local organizations that serve the same target communities. DYCD facilitates those community-based partnerships, assists in program design, and enlists participants and graduates in peer-to-peer engagement, officials said Monday. DYCD is also preparing a request for proposals for an additional training program under the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, they said.

DYCD representatives at the hearing could not provide details on the agency's spending on outreach and recruitment to fill program vacancies. "I think it's really important that we get that information," said Menin. "I just have to say this should be top line information that the agency has at a hearing like this, we're talking about how these programs work or don't work."

In 2021, the city's Disconnected Youth Task Force, empaneled by then-Mayor Bill de Blasio and Council Speaker Corey Johnson to examine the issue of out-of-school out-of-work youth, recommended the city target career pathways in high growth sectors, setting job planning benchmarks across the city's agency- and school-based programs, and appointing a single agency or position responsible for programming focused on this population. Mayor Adams has made workforce development and wrap-around youth support priorities of his first year-plus in office but implementation is still to be seen.

DYCD funding shrank in Mayor Adams’ January preliminary budget to $943 million, from $1.1 billion in the current fiscal year (FY2023), with more City Council discretionary dollars expected to be added when the budget is adopted, according to a DYCD spokesperson. Adams included an additional $1.1 million for the Train & Earn program, bringing total funding for it in the preliminary budget to $17.5 million. Another $3.5 million is included as a baseline for Advance & Earn with additional funding expected to be added later in the budget cycle, the spokesperson said. The program received $13.5 million in the current fiscal year. Adams’ preliminary budget will soon be the subject of weeks of City Council hearings and the two sides will negotiate a new city budget over the coming months before they must agree on a spending plan by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year.

According to Stevens, a former community organizer and service provider, a key factor dictating the success of a jobs program is ongoing engagement after the participant’s stint ends. According to DYCD, officials monitor providers' follow-up work but do not require standard approaches across programs — the follow-up can take many forms. "We really do encourage our providers to really work very diligently and ensuring that they're providing very supportive services to our young people during that follow-up period," Mulligan said.

But Stevens pointed out that there was "no real expectation" from DYCD of what form follow-up efforts should take. "That might be a problem," she said.

DYCD's most well-known jobs program, the much larger Summer Youth Employment Program, is also lauded as an entryway into career pathways, though it is geared more toward high school students and less focused on ongoing employment. Adams and the City Council expanded the program last year from 75,000 slots to 100,000, with a budget of $207.4 million, according to a DYCD spokesperson. Adams' preliminary budget for next fiscal year has $195.9 million for the program, with more funding expected to be added at the adoption of the budget, the spokesperson said.

"We must warn that many of the OSOW population continue to struggle to matriculate into SYEP opportunities," said Amanda Rosenblum, vice president of JobsFirstNYC, a workforce development consulting and advocacy group, before the Council committees Monday. "Additionally, the expansion of SYEP isn’t enough to support the economic mobility of young adults. Young Adults may develop basic professional skills through SYEP but it hasn’t historically changed their workforce outcomes."

by Ethan Geringer-Sameth, reporter, Gotham Gazette

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