I was 15 when I had my first summer job at a snowball stand outside Baltimore. I learned how to use an ice shaver, shape ice and pour flavors. I don’t use those specific skills today. But, during this first brush with the workforce, I learned how to manage my time, interact with customers and understand cash flow.
Our first jobs, no matter how trivial the tasks, mean something. Research shows that the sooner one has employment experiences and the more often they do — especially for young people in disadvantaged communities — the more likely they are to do well in school, develop positive relationships with adults and see new possibilities for their futures. While summer employment does not always lead to long-term employment, it provides a temporary paycheck and an opportunity to learn responsibility, practice skills and accept feedback.
There is a disconnect, however, between what this research suggests and what happens to many young people who need these early opportunities the most. Only 53.2 percent of young people ages 16 to 24 were employed in the summer of 2016. The rates are even lower for minority populations: 42.7 percent of African-American and 49.8 percent of Hispanic young people were employed during the same time period. Time spent out of school can increase the likelihood of engaging in criminal activities or unhealthy behaviors. Without engaging in a productive activity like work, young people can experience loss of learning from the previous school year.
As summer winds down but before the rush of fall begins, youth-serving employment programs may have a little time to take stock. What worked this year for our young participants? What didn’t? What additional supports do we, as an organization, need next year, and what do our participants need? What can we do to connect with more young people and help them acquire more skills and better wages?
There is a growing literature base around what works in summer youth employment. It offers important lessons for programs recruiting and training young people for summer, as well as preparing them for longer-term job opportunities. Most notably, the research suggests that while most programs provide a range of benefits to young people, those benefits are largely short-term. While participants gain a paycheck and new skills, they don’t often translate to long-term outcomes related to sustained employment, wages or educational attainment.
A job by itself is not enough. Some surmise that a strong network of supports in summer youth employment programs is needed to affect long-term change:
- Comprehensively assess needs: By starting with a comprehensive assessment, programs can ensure that they identify participant needs upfront. When summer youth employment programs partner with other agencies, they can make referrals to meet basic needs, such as transportation or child care. Doing so will potentially eliminate barriers and improve program and long-term labor market participation over time.
- Offer coaching or case management supports: The relationship between staff and young people is critical not only for program retention, but for overall youth outcomes. Expanding staff capacities to include dedicated case managers or coaches can help identify and mitigate challenges.
- Use an empowerment approach: By framing summer employment as the first step toward longer-term outcomes, programs can inspire and empower participants to set and achieve goals related to education or employment. When young people are involved in their own planning and goal-setting efforts, they learn that they have a meaningful role to play in their own futures. For example, empowering a young person to research and select a career path based on their interests or aptitudes vs. telling them which job is available or which program to enroll in gives them a stake in their futures.
To boost summer youth employment, some cities and local communities are creating public-private partnerships to sustain and scale efforts — leveraging local business and employer needs. In Baltimore, the unemployment rate is about 6 percent, and 25 percent for young people ages 16 to 24.
In response, the Mayor’s Office of Employment Development is growing its YouthWorks program through partnerships with companies like Sagamore Development Company (SDC), owned by Under Armour’s CEO, Kevin Plank. As SDC undertakes a private/publicly financed urban redevelopment project, it will generate 70,000 new jobs and offer the city a community benefits package, which includes funding 100 summer YouthWorks jobs for 10 years. This partnership will offer exposure to various careers and give young people opportunities to build skills in industries like maritime and technology.
That snowball stand outside Baltimore offered me my first professional experience and is where I began to build important capacities I have honed over time. These capacities have been further shaped by different and varied work experiences and strong mentors along the way.
We are beginning to learn more about what works in youth employment — that a job alone is not enough. Young people also need connections to supportive, longer-term programs. Likewise, for programs to grow, they may seek out public-private partnerships that expand their reach — touching more businesses, more workforce sectors and more young people.
Jacqueline Rhodes, M.A. is a manager at ICF, a global consulting and technology services provider, where she works on a range of projects related to capacity building, workforce systems collaboration, responsible fatherhood, disconnected youth and self-sufficiency research. She previously worked at the Center for Urban Families in Baltimore.