Lessons in Summer Jobs Plus

How cities are reinventing jobs programs for disconnected youth

Needham Hurst Grey

By Needham Hurst • October 26, 2015

Cities across the country are turning traditional summer jobs program into targeted interventions for disconnected youth. At last month’s gathering of the Project on Municipal Innovation - Advisory Group (PMI-AG), mayoral chiefs of staff discussed the success of many cities in creating effective programs while highlighting the challenges in funding and collaboration ahead.

Creating “Summer Jobs Plus” was common theme across Chicago, Los Angeles, and Louisville’s efforts to connect youth to employment. We heard three key lessons in success from these cities’ efforts to use summer jobs programs as scaffolds of opportunity for youth.

  1. Proving summer jobs programs work: In a randomized controlled trial published in the journal Science, researchers found that assignment to a summer job in Chicago’s program decreased violent crime by 43% for disconnected youth. The city’s program was designed to bridge young people to private sector employment by providing jobs and ongoing 1-on-1 mentorship. With this proven model for success, Chicago hopes to employ 25,000 youth next summer, making it one of the largest programs in the country.
  1. Targeting jobs in science and engineering: On the West Coast, the City of Los Angeles is reinventing its summer jobs program to be more focused on technical trades. First, they offer young people city jobs with exposure to science and engineering, which reinforces the importance of continuing their STEM education. Second, all participants are trained in financial literacy, from how to set up bank accounts to resolving issues with credit scores. Finally, the program is designed to bridge young people to higher education through an end of summer college fair with easy sign-ups for certificate training programs.
  1. Focusing on the youth who need the most support year-round: In Louisville, the city prioritized working with disconnected youth year-round. The city rolled out its Zones of Hope and Right Turn programs to employ young black men and boys in areas with high crime rates and those exiting the juvenile justice system--with a special focus on five neighborhoods with high unemployment. For Louisville, these programs place an emphasis on connecting youth into the high tech manufacturing jobs that drive the state’s new economy.

There is a tough road ahead for creating sustainable workforce programs for disconnected youth. Cities from around the country highlighted some key challenges they face when trying to partner with the private sector and state and federal funders:

  1. Collaboration with the private sector: City leaders noted a lack of engagement from private sector partners in turning city-sponsored employment programs into a pipeline for private sector jobs. The challenge is not only a lack of career readiness--but also a lack of investment by private sector partners in apprenticeship models of employee development. Some bright spots exist, especially in partnership with the building trades unions, but even with building trades there are low rates of graduation from apprenticeships for people of color.
  1. Consistent, reliable funding: Funding for starting, sustaining, and expanding summer jobs programs is a challenge in every city. Some, like Chicago, have filled the gap left by the lack of Federal support with millions from the city general fund. Others, like NYC, are tapping state and federal Medicaid funding to embed mental health support in their programs. Philadelphia has pursued a strategy of partnering with nonprofits like PowerCorps PHL to braid AmeriCorp funding with other state and city grants for integrative programming. Chiefs of staff agree that there needs to be a new funding backbone for disconnected youth, rather than a patchwork of grants and local one-off allocations.
  1. Supporting disconnected youth and their children: Kisha Bird at the Center for Law and Social Policy commented that 4 in 10 young people in poverty are also raising children. With so many young people struggling with the high cost of childcare, cities need to create a two-generational approach to address disconnected youth systematically. Bird noted there may be opportunities to mix TANF and block grant funding into summer youth jobs to provide a more holistic approach.

This new generation of summer jobs programs offers us lessons about how to use them strategically to address disconnected youth. Leaders who want holistic programs can look to build in wrap-around services like mentorship and childcare, focus on exposing young people to technical and engineering trades, and actively bridge young people to private jobs and higher education.