Do Summer Youth Employment Programs Work?

By ·June 28, 2019
School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, Northeastern University

The Issue:

Many believe that early work experience — such as that provided by summer jobs — can keep teens out of trouble,foster positive traits such as  independence and responsibility, and teach interpersonal skills that can enhance their future employment prospects and earnings potential. And that this is especially true for disadvantaged youth. Every year, tens of thousands of youth participate in summer employment programs sponsored by cities and other local jurisdictions. Although summer jobs programs have the potential to enhance youth outcomes along several dimensions, researchers have only recently focused on evaluating their impact. What do we know about the effectiveness of these programs for improving outcomes and reducing inequality among youth?

Participation in summer jobs programs reduced youth involvement in and exposure to violence and delinquent behavior in several cities.

The Facts:

  • Youth employment has been falling over the past few decades and there is evidence that the labor market has become more challenging and competitive for youth. This makes the existence of sponsored summer employment programs potentially more important. A tight labor market often improves job prospects for typically hard-to-employ groups with fewer skills and less experience, such as teens. Yet, as of May 2019 the unemployment rate for youth age 16 to 19 years was 12.7 percent—nearly three times the overall rate of 3.7 percent. Moreover, the share of teens aged 16-19 who are in working or looking for work has fallen from 48.9 percent in October 1978 to only 30.0 percent today (see chart). Post-secondary credentials — a certificate, an associate degree, or a bachelor’s degree — have become a requirement for many jobs that previously required only a high school degree. Employer expectations are also higher for work readiness, communication, and other  "soft skills" that are difficult for youth to demonstrate without a track record of work experience. Together, these hurdles make it hard for many young people, particularly those with weak school and work records, to enter and move up in the labor market. Indeed, over half of unemployed teens report that they are looking to get their first job, suggesting that there may be fewer pathways for teens to enter the labor market. African-American and Hispanic teens—especially those from low-income families in high poverty neighborhoods—have experienced the greatest difficulties in finding employment.
  • Summer youth employment programs (SYEP) established by policymakers and local business leaders exist in many U.S. cities. These programs range in size and can be quite large in scale: roughly 10,000 youth are employed each summer through the program in Boston and over 40,000 in New York City, for instance. Typically youth aged 14 to 24 can participate but the majority of participants are between 16 and 19. Some of these programs have been in place for some time (Boston's, for instance, dates back to the 1980s). Initially, the motivation was to keep youth off the streets and out of trouble during program hours while improving “soft skills” such as self-efficacy, impulse control, and conflict resolution. Increasingly, policymakers also seek to use SYEPs as a vehicle to provide meaningful employment experiences that can lead to a career or some type of postsecondary education. Participants typically work a maximum of 25 hours per week for a six-week period from early July through mid-August and are paid the minimum wage. Youth may be placed in either a subsidized position (e.g., with a local nonprofit, community-based organization, or city agency) or a job with a private-sector employer where the employer pays the youth directly. In addition, programs in some cities, provide some job-readiness training (e.g., Boston) or social-emotional learning (e.g., Chicago). 
  • With a price tag of roughly $2,000 per participant, these efforts are often constrained by a lack of funding — particularly at the federal level. In the early 1990s, most federal funding ended on the assumption that in a full-employment economy, employers would hire youth without any government subsidy. Aside from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which has now ended, and a small portion of funding under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, most SYEP funding comes from state and local sources. Some large city mayors pulled together funds from various sources to sustain their programs, recognizing that inner city youth rarely get hired even in the best economic times. But program slots have not been sufficient given a rising minimum wage and growing applicant pools. Because more youth apply than there are program jobs available, participation is assigned by lottery. This means researchers can compare participants to a random set of similar applicants who did not win spots in the program.
  • Research indicates that youth who found spots in a program were more likely to work during the summer and did so for more hours than those who did not. Both survey and administrative data from the Boston SYEP, for instance, show that only one-quarter to one-third of youth in the control group had worked—likely an indication of the difficulty that youth face in securing their own employment during the summer, even with a relatively low unemployment rate. In addition, the SYEP treatment group worked more hours per week than those who worked in the control group, perhaps due to having more stable schedules provided by the program. 
  • Summer employment programs reduced crime among participating youth in several cities. In theory it is possible that by providing youth with a set of socially productive activities and /or disrupting delinquent activities SYEPs may decrease the risk of exposure to, or participation in, violence and delinquent behavior (see here and here). Indeed, research finds that participating in Chicago’s One Summer Plus program decreased violent crime for youth in the treatment group by 43 percent over 16 months relative to the control group, with much of the decline occurring during the year after participation. Similarly, I find that the Boston SYEP reduced the number of arraignments for violent (-35 percent) and property (-29 percent) crimes among youth in the treatment group relative to the control group during the 17 months after participation. Finally, researchers found that participating in the New York City SYEP reduced the probability of incarceration and mortality from “external causes,” including homicides, suicides, and accidents. The effects of reducing crime persisted beyond the summer months, suggesting that something beyond keeping youth "busy" during the summer could be at play. In Boston, improvements in social skills such as managing emotions, asking for help, and resolving conflict with a peer were associated with a larger reduction in criminal arraignments for both violent and property crimes. In contrast, improvements in other short-term program measures such as job readiness and academic aspirations did not play a meaningful role in reducing the number of arraignments per youth. These findings suggest that the impacts stem more from social and emotional development rather than improving human capital and employment opportunities. These findings are also consistent with other recent evidence from Chicago's program that found that the reduction in crime was larger for youth who do not experience a long-term increase in employment from participating in the program.
  • Previous research has shown encouraging results on some academic outcomes such as school attendance and passing statewide exams — but no impact on longer-term outcomes. Early work experience could potentially improve job readiness skills as well as raise career and academic aspirations. In practice, the evidence is mixed in this area. For example, one study finds significant increases of one to two percent in school attendance for the treatment group relative to the control group during the year following participation in the New York City SYEP, with larger improvements for students aged 16 years and older with prior low baseline attendance. Another study find small, but significant, increases in the share of NYC SYEP participants taking and passing statewide high school exams relative to the control group. However, other research indicates that the New York City SYEP did not have a positive effect on longer-term academic outcomes, such as graduating from high school or college enrollment.
  • Several studies examine the link between SYEPs and subsequent employment and earnings but find little evidence of any permanent improvement that can be attributed to summer jobs programs. Two studies find that the New York City SYEP initially increases average earnings and the probability of employment, but the effects subsequently faded (see here and here). Another study using machine-learning to identify subgroup impacts in Chicago finds that employment improved only for participants that are more likely to be younger, enrolled in school, Hispanic, female, and less likely to have an arrest record.
  • In survey responses, youth who participated in the Boston program reported feeling better prepared for future jobs, with the gains being larger among minority youth. Participants reported increases in community engagement and social skills, job readiness skills, and college aspirations that were significantly different from the control group. For example, by the end of the summer a greater share of youth reported knowing how to manage their emotions, how to ask for help when they needed it, and how to constructively resolve conflict with a peer — and their attitudes toward their communities had greatly improved. In terms of academic aspirations, while there was no significant change among the treatment group with regards to their plans to attend an education or training program after high school, there was a significant shift towards wanting to pursue a four-year college degree. And finally, participants indicated sizeable growth in job readiness skills such as preparing a resume and cover letter and practicing interview skills. All of these outcomes were significantly better than those reported by the control group at the end of the summer and in most cases, the largest gains were observed for non-white youth suggesting that the program may have the capacity to reduce inequality across groups.

What this Means:

Early work exposure has become increasingly rare among teenagers. Summer youth employment programs make it easier for youth to find jobs and, unlike year-round undertakings, they happen when youth are likely to be idle rather than competing with academic studies or extracurricular activities. The evidence to date indicates that summer youth employment programs have the potential to reduce delinquent behavior, enhance academic aspirations and performance, and improve social and emotional development. Compared to more targeted behavioral programs, SYEPs provide job experience that may also lead to a future career or post-secondary education. Moreover, these programs help families at or near the poverty line by providing income to teens — of whom half report paying one or more household bills. Finally, these programs supply low-cost workers to community-based programs such as summer camps that provide inexpensive daycare for working parents. While evidence of the long-term effects in education or employment is mixed, the positive impacts associated with the reduction in crime indicate that the benefits of summer jobs programs exceed the costs. Looking ahead, SYEPs can lay a strong foundation upon which additional interventions can be layered to achieve more sustained and meaningful outcomes — perhaps by providing greater linkages between summer and year-round employment programs, full-time work, community college enrollment or apprenticeships.


Written by The EconoFact Network. To contact with any questions or comments, please email [email protected].
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