Youth Employment Programs Should Focus on Quality, Not Just Numbers Served

Summer’s almost here and with it will come another DC summer youth jobs program. Youth employment programs can play a constructive role in young people’s lives: connecting them to the world of work, teaching interpersonal and occupational skills, and serving as a springboard for the future.

But that is not the summer jobs program we have here. The District’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) can charitably be called “uneven.” Although some youth have positive experiences every summer, that’s due to the individual initiative of host sites, not by design or oversight.

Last summer’s program had well-publicized problems that led to a $30 million overrun and the firing of the agency’s director. A few key decisions – not putting a cap on enrollment and extending the length of the program from six weeks to 10 weeks – overwhelmed the Department of Employment Services (DOES). Even before the program’s expansion in 2008 to 21,000+ youth, DOES did not administer a consistently high-quality program. Last summer was not the first time young people got paid to do nothing.

The city is to be applauded for setting a bold goal to help youth. But it needs to align its vision with budgetary realities and its administrative capacity. The FY 2009 budget allocated $23 million for this summer’s program. Yet wages alone for the anticipated 21,000 participants will cost $33 million.

The FY 2010 budget allocates $43 million to SYEP, seemingly a realistic estimate. Especially in a tough budget environment, that is a lot of money, particularly for a program with uneven and sometimes poor outcomes. Meanwhile, only $9 million is allocated towards year-round youth employment programs. If the city is serious about helping youth, it should beef up its year-round programs – youth don’t only need guidance, support and skill-building in the summer months.

Given its track record, it is irresponsible to put $43 million toward SYEP. In budgeting for the 2010 effort, the agency should decide how many youth it can serve in a high-quality program -certainly far fewer than 21,000, and probably fewer than 15,000 participants. It can then focus on making the improvements needed to ensure a successful experience for participants – engaging employers to develop quality placements, getting youth work-ready, and improving program administration.

Then the city should direct the remainder of the funds towards year-round programs with a focus on disconnected youth: release a request for proposals for programs that serve youth and young adults with a combination of occupational skills training, basic skills education, work readiness services, and maybe stipends for participants.

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