Youth Summer Jobs Program: Did it Work?

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At a time when many youth-serving agencies await word on whether there will be any federal money set aside for another youth employment initiative this summer, a long-awaited evaluation of the Recovery Act-funded summer jobs program of 2009 released Wednesday provided mixed findings.

While the evaluation says it obtained “rich information” on the short-term value of Summer Youth Employment Initiative (SYEI), the authors found that the hurried nature of the initiative caused some implementation problems, and that they could not judge the quality of youth experiences and longer-term progress for the participants.

“Future evaluation efforts are necessary to study those aspects of the Recovery Act effort,” says the report, Reinvesting in America's Youth: Lessons from the 2009 Recovery Act Summer Youth Employment Initiative. “Long-term follow up or better efforts to track future participants can provide more insight into how this youth population fares beyond the summer.”

The evaluation – conducted for the U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc. using visits and interviews at 20 sites –  yielded a series of “overall impressions” and “lessons learned” from the initiative. The initiative placed  314,000 youths in summer jobs.

Those lessons and overall impression include:

  • Due to the short timeframe they had to get the programs off the ground, some sites had to “make compromises along the way, including curbing the extent of innovation and choosing to implement some practices without exploring all possible options.” For example, some sites chose not to develop procurement procedures that would have allowed new and diverse local organizations to compete for summer youth employment contracts. Others indicated they did not have enough time to properly vet many of the worksites.
  • The program got money to poor families, enabled those families to spend the money in a depressed economy and provided youths with “valuable work experience.”
  • But the study was “unable to assess how meaningful youth experiences were or how their experiences could affect them and their communities over time.”
  • Although sites were encouraged to involve private employers, some sites hesitated to do so because of concerns about choosing one private employer over another for a government-subsidized job, lack of sufficient information on the quality of private sector jobs, and age and background restrictions imposed by private employers.
  • Some site mangers felt (and youth agreed) that matching youths to employers “could have been improved by either aligning employer recruitment to the interests of youth or more closely considering data from youth intake and assessments when determining the most appropriate employer.”
  • Sites “varied dramatically” in measurements of work readiness increases among youth and sometimes used different approaches within their own sites. “These inconsistencies make it difficult to assess the true meaning of the national performance measure.”

Youths and employers had lots of positive things to say. The evaluation says youths “appreciated the opportunity to hold a job, gain work skills, and build their résumés. Many were enthusiastic about having money in their pockets for the first time and about being able to help their families in tough economic times. Many reported that, in the absence of the initiative, they would have been competing for jobs with more experienced adult workers or doing nothing productive over the summer.”

The most common complaint youths had was that the summer jobs program was “too short and offered few work hours.”

Employers, the evaluation states, reported that the experience was “worth the effort of mentoring youthful employees and almost unanimously agreed that they would participate again if given the opportunity.”

Even if dedicated federal funding is not available for this summer, the evaluation says, “a few sites felt the success of the [SYEI] in helping youth gain a better understanding of the world of work would prompt them to consider dedicating a larger portion of their [Workforce Investment Act]-formula funds to developing summer initiatives for youth.”