NYC Missing Big Chance To Build Teens' Careers

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New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) will serve approximately 9,000 fewer young people this summer than in 1999, and will turn away tens of thousands of applicants due to limited slots, according to a report released today by the Center for an Urban Future, City Limits' sister think tank. The report shows that while the Bloomberg administration and City Council have significantly increased city funding for the program in recent years, steep cutbacks in federal support and a higher state minimum wage have caused the number of participants to shrink by 21 percent.

The report concludes that the declining enrollment in the summer jobs program is deeply troubling, since New York’s teen employment rate is the lowest of any of the nation’s 50 largest cities. The city also has an alarmingly high number of “disconnected youth,” young people who are neither working nor in school. According to the study, research by national workforce development experts shows that early work experience strongly boosts young workers’ prospects for future success in the job market.

Here is an excerpt from the report:

While there is no solid formula to measure the return on investment for subsidizing SYEP participation, a wealth of research suggests that the value is quite substantial for participants’ future jobholding and earning power.

Although SYEP is not means-tested for participants, the city is required to check participants’ financial eligibility in order to draw down state funds, and the numbers suggest that more participants than not hail from low- to middle-income households. Additionally, nearly three quarters of participants from 2006 were non-white. Research has found both that teens from wealthier families and white teens have higher rates of part-time employment than non-white and less well off young people. In that sense, SYEP gives a double boost to many of its participants.

Researchers found that during 2005, the employment rate of white New Yorkers between the ages of 16 and 19 was almost a third more than of blacks in the same age range, and about 12 percent more than older Hispanic teens. Without SYEP, those numbers would likely be considerably more skewed.

But what exactly do participants gain by working? And who gains the most? Perhaps the most definitive answers to these questions are found in a book-length report by Andrew Sum, Neeta Fogg, and Garth Mangum, released in 2000, titled “Confronting the Youth Demographic Challenge: The Labor Market Prospects of Out-of-School Young Adults.”

“The cumulative years of work experience and the nature of [teens’] work experiences are critical determinants of their weekly and annual earnings,” they write. “Early work experience during the high school years has frequently been found in past national and local studies to have favorable labor market consequences for youth, especially for those not enrolling in four-year colleges and universities immediately upon graduation from high school. Those youth who obtain more work experience during the high school years experience smoother transitions to the labor market upon graduation, obtain higher weekly wages when they do work, and earn more per year 10 to 15 years after leaving high school.”

In other words, young people not immediately bound for college – whether from lack of interest, inability to pay, or need for quick income from work – gain the most from work experience as a teen. This is meaningful given that tens of thousands of city high school students graduate every year and do not immediately enroll in college. It also suggests that the SYEP program could maximize the return on public investment by giving preference for work opportunities to high school seniors (who typically account for more than three-quarters of total participants) who are unsure about or unlikely to directly pursue post-secondary education.

While almost any summer job has some positive impact, Sum, Fogg and Mangum argue that the better that job, the bigger the likely impact will be: “The quality of an employed youth’s work experience also influences the size of its labor market impacts. The opportunity to acquire new skills, to obtain more work hours per week, and to integrate school and work-based learning improve hourly wages and occupational mobility in the early school-leaving years.”

This suggests that the impulse behind CAPITAL, GirlsREACH and BoysREACH – to connect participating young people to higher-value work experiences with private-sector employers – is a good one, and probably deserving of even more city resources and effort than it currently commands. As things stand now, the “ladder” on which SYEP is a lower rung and CAPITAL, GirlsREACH and BoysREACH are next steps up would look more like a pyramid with a very wide base quickly coming to a point.

New York City is hoping to place a few hundred young people in private-sector internships. In contrast, Philadelphia – a city with less than a fifth of NYC’s population and a less diverse and high-powered business community – plans to secure 1,000 employer-paid internships for its young people this summer. The push for these internships has come not from government, but from the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Similarly, the private sector in Boston long has taken a leading role in helping to provide young residents of that city with meaningful work experiences; indeed, the program there served as a model for CAPITAL.

The comparison between New York and these other cities is imprecise because neither Philadelphia nor Boston – where several thousand young people gain private-sector internships each summer – has a publicly funded summer youth program at anywhere near the scope of SYEP. Additionally, a significant number of private-sector employers in New York City have their own programs for summer hiring.

“When we approach companies about participating in CAPITAL, we often hear that they’re already doing something on their own,” says Rich McKeon of the advisory Youth Board. “I don’t know if anybody’s ever documented how many employers are doing this, and what the untapped potential might be.”

Policymakers should worry about the possibility that this potential will remain “untapped.” If the research is correct that work experience during the teen years gives a strong boost to chances of later success in the job market, it is very troubling that so many young New Yorkers who want to work aren’t able to find summer jobs. In 2006, nearly 30,000 young New Yorkers were not selected through the lottery, and early indications are that an even larger number will find themselves out of luck this year. The extreme weakness of the city’s young adult labor market – which Sum, in a more recent publication, characterizes as a “depression era” employment rate – means that rejected SYEP applicants have very dim prospects of finding work through other means.

Finally, even program administrators acknowledge that we don’t know as much about SYEP as we should. “I think it would be terrific to get some money to do a longitudinal study about participants,” says DYCD Assistant Commissioner Suzanne Lynn. “We actually have a natural experiment; we can compare the long-term employment and earnings effects of those not selected for the lottery versus those who were.”


• The federal government must resume substantial support for summer youth employment programs, helping New York City and other localities place many thousands more young people into jobs.

• City government and the business community should measure the extent to which private-sector employers are hiring young New Yorkers for summer work outside the parameters of public programs.

• The Department of Youth and Community Development should offer more support for SYEP providers in fleshing out the educational component of the program, including a sample curriculum and opportunities to learn from best practices.

• The philanthropic community should fund a major quantitative and qualitative assessment of SYEP and summer work in general.

– David Jason Fischer

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