Statistics from July, 2016, paint a picture of “half and half-not” for young people in the U.S. when it comes to summer employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 20.5 million American youth aged 16 to 24 worked this summer — only 53 percent of the members of this age group, a number virtually unchanged from 2015. This means that roughly 18 million young people missed out on the positive effects of a first job.
Despite the best efforts of mayors across the country, private and nonprofit employers, workforce boards, philanthropists and banks, youth job training organizations, and youth and their families themselves, the labor-force participation rate for young adults remains significantly below its height at 77.5 percent in July 1989. If anything, recent declines have accelerated.
Nonetheless, municipal leaders, researchers, and youth advocates continue to bring forward new ideas and set ambitious goals for summer youth employment. A fresh and extensive report from the Brookings Institution released in July, Youth Summer Jobs Programs: Aligning Ends and Means, tallies those ideas and goals, and provides a strong platform for discussions leading to action in Summer 2017 and beyond.
The report will surely stimulate action planning during upcoming policy discussions — most notably the Oct. 18-19 Annual Forum of the National Youth Employment Coalition; the Heartland Institute’s Oct. 25-27 National Conference on Ending Chronic Unemployment & Poverty; the Nov. 16-19 National League of Cities’ CItySummit in Pittsburgh; and the September meeting of the US Conference of Mayors’ Workforce Development Council – all with an eye to building consensus around next steps for 2017.
Recommendations in the report suggest valuable topics for discussion, namely:
- What goals to set for summer jobs programs, including and going beyond the number of youth who participate, and how to measure progress toward those goals;
- How best to build knowledge about the short- and long-term effects of summer jobs for teens, as well as the most promising operational and staffing practices within programs;
- Ways to deepen and extend services to young people – during and beyond the summer — and to employers; and
- Opportunities to stabilize, diversify, and expand the funding that goes to staffing formal programs, ensuring quality of job placement, and in many cases subsidizing youth wages.
Regarding this final recommendation, report authors Martha Ross and Richard Kazis even suggest “developing a large-scale competitive program for demonstrations and planning grants.” In view of the benefits of summer employment documented by the U.S. Department of Labor, one clear option involves having the federal government recommit to support summer youth employment. Decades have passed since the federal government made a dedicated, multi-year investment in this area, during which time a number of cities have experimented in both the scope and scale of their summer jobs programs. Cities like Chicago have experimented with using cognitive behavioral therapy to address the full range of barriers that may prevent young people from benefiting from employment, and cities like Washington, D.C., have provided summer employment for all interested youth. Which members of Congress, senators or presidential candidates will step forward to lead a federal recommitment to these programs?
While advocates push for a renewed federal commitment to summer jobs programs, mayors, workforce leaders, and employers can undertake a parallel effort to increase publicly-organized summer employment rates. Coordinated technical assistance and sharing of models by federal agencies and national organizations can support local leaders’ efforts.
Similarly, a proposal from the Community Service Society of New York suggests an ambitious new way of approaching the topic of universal summer employment for the teens in a city, framing it as an older-youth equivalent of many cities’ move toward universal pre-Kindergarten. Integrating employment into our shared expectations for what society – and, by extension, the government – owes to young adults, as we have for young children and early childhood education, provides a promising way of responding to the challenge of youth underemployment.
Any broad policy discussion as to “where next for summer jobs?” also needs to grapple with three commonly cited goals for such programs. The first involves how best to understand the asserted positive relationship of summer jobs with reducing youth misbehavior – a Kerner Commission-era rationale for federal investments that began 50 years ago and lasted until the turn of the century. More detailed study of the benefits of programs such as the one being undertaken in Chicago may provide a route to greater understanding on this front. The second major item that needs to be confronted involves the disappointing findings from 1990s-era evaluations regarding labor market effects of participation in summer jobs, which contributed to severe cuts in federal support. This relates directly to the first recommendation and discussion topic from the Brookings report: what goals can we fairly establish for summer jobs?
A third item involves the degree to which it’s possible to meet local private-sector needs, for instance, through summer positions that place youth on the beginning of pathways to middle-skill jobs – a category that includes jobs in advanced manufacturing or health care. Today, most publicly funded summer-jobs programs still place young people in public-sector positions. As an example, an audit of Washington, D.C.’s longstanding and extensive program shows 10 percent of placements in the 2015 program were in private-sector jobs.
For our parts, the National Youth Employment Coalition and the National League of Cities Institute for Youth, Education, and Families stand ready to grapple with questions about these goals – and to support localities who want to expand the number of young people who experience the benefits of a paying job.
About the Authors
Andrew Moore is Director of Youth and Young Adult Connections in NLC’s Institute for Youth, Education & Families.
Thomas Showalter is Director of the National Youth Employment Coalition.