Guidelines released today for spending the $1.2 billion provided by the federal stimulus bill for summer job programs spell out the jobs, the employers and the youths that can be included in the programs.
While the guidance from the U.S. Department of Labor's (DOL) Employment and Training Administration stresses that "system stakeholders at every level must continue to develop and refine innovative service delivery strategies in the context of regional economies," it also admonishes local workforce boards - the agencies that ultimately will be responsible for administering the funds - to ensure jobs are providing real work experience for participants, not busy work.
But looming deadlines and the complex ways of determining whether youths meet low-income limits make the labor department's call for the workforce boards to spend the money "expeditiously and effectively" all the more difficult.
Even workforce board directors in cities that have been running summer youth employment programs admit they face a learning curve and feel under the gun when it comes to making sure they spend the stimulus money for summer jobs effectively, but within guidelines and deadlines.
"I'm a little anxious about it," said William J. Monagle, executive director of the Little Rock (Ark.) Workforce Investment Board. "I think we're up for the challenge, though, especially a city in our position where we have a program in place."
Although some workforce boards have contracts with service providers for running summer jobs initiatives, these providers may not be eligible to run the new program under the DOL guidelines. For example, although Little Rock has a contract with Arbor Education & Training, of Media, Penn., to run its summer jobs program, additional service providers may be needed to help with the additional summer jobs being created with stimulus money.
The DOL guidance says states may seek waivers to expand existing contracts or to conduct expedited limited competitions for service providers, but in the latter case, the providers must have "proven records of success."
Do's and Don'ts
But flexibility won't be easy to come by. Among the jobs that the DOL guidance says are off limits for stimulus funds: working at zoos, casinos, aquariums, golf courses and swimming pools.
Beyond those restrictions, youth employment advocates worry that youths interested in summer jobs created by stimulus money could have a difficult time proving they are poor or disadvantaged enough to qualify for the program.
The stimulus package does not allow agencies to use free and reduced lunch criteria to determine eligibility, as many had hoped. For the summer programs, "low-income" means, among other things, families that get cash payments under a federal, state or local income-based public assistance program or meet other complex criteria.
In addition, participating youths must be able to show that they have at least one of the barriers to education or employment identified in the Workforce Investment Act. Those barriers include being deficient in basic literacy skills, a high school dropout, homeless, a runaway, a foster child, pregnant or parenting, an offender or an individual who requires additional assistance to complete an education program or hold down a job. The age for participants stretches from 14 to 24.
Mala Thakur, executive director of the National Youth Employment Coalition, described the eligibility requirements as "cumbersome" and said they could make it difficult to serve the disadvantaged youth for whom the summer jobs are meant.
"I think there are some potential obstacles there," Thakur said. "If it's hard to provide the documentation, you can't serve a younger person."
Because the summer jobs money can be used to help youths up to age 24, Thakur stressed the need for agencies to take extra steps to reach older youths who may not be inclined to seek summer jobs.
Advice for Best Approach
Youth employment advocates fear that some jurisdictions that haven't run summer jobs recently, or at all, might end up with slipshod, ineffective programs that will generate negative media coverage, which would create a backlash that makes Congress reluctant to fund summer jobs programs in the future.
"There has to be very careful watch that youth aren't being put into the kind of experiences that don't provide meaningful work experience," said Scott Cheney, interim executive director at the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Workforce Boards. "We want to make sure businesses have opportunities to provide critical work experience for the youth so they can be the best employee they can be."
Not everyone agrees on which way is best to accomplish those goals.
John Twomey, executive director of the New York Association of Training and Employment Professionals, said it's best to put youths to work in small groups that are easy to supervise and give more substantial attention. "When you have 50 kids, you have some that are going to sit down and goof off," Twomey said. He added that smaller groups give supervisors more control and more time to teach practical skills to youths.
But going small isn't universally accepted for all jobs. Consider the advice that Greg Weltz, director of the Office of Youth Services for the DOL, gave to attendees last week at the annual convention for the National Association of Workforce Boards: "Think green." And look for a ways to get "large numbers of young people engaged" as opposed to grouping them in "onesies and twosies."
Steve Corona, president of JobWorks in Fort Wayne, Ind., said agencies should not go off into unchartered territory this summer, because there's not enough time to plan. "Keep it simple," Corona said during the same panel discussion as Weltz. "Don't' try to get fancy this year. Plan carefully and set a manageable goal."
Weltz urged agencies to start recruiting youths and doing other preparations immediately. They can use stimulus funds retroactively to pay for any stimulus-related preparations made after Feb. 17, the date the stimulus package was signed into law.
Not all of the $1.2 billion has to be spent this summer, but the expectation is that most of it will be, said Byron Zuidema, regional administrator for DOL's Employment and Training Administration. "Even though the life of the funds extends over to 2011, let me say that we are not expecting that you're taking the money, dividing it" and running summer programs this year and successive years, he said.
Not all of the money has to be spent on employment; some can be spent on education and training.