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How youth summer jobs can help drive down crime and launch careers

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Mayors in many cities throughout the U.S., including Boston, Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., have looked to summer youth employment programs (SYEP) as a potential way to address the decline in teen employment as well as concerns regarding youth violence prevention.

Northeastern labor economist Alicia Sasser Modestino is leading a multi-year study with the Boston Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development to shed light on what works for summer jobs programs, as well as what works for whom, under what conditions, and why. Through this researcher-practitioner partnership, they launched a formal evaluation of the Boston SYEP program during the summer of 2015.

Phase I of the research, The Potential for Summer Youth Employment Programs to Reduce Inequality: What Do We Know?, has been completed based on an initial pilot survey of Boston SYEP participants conducted during the summer of 2015. The results indicate that in the short term, the Boston program impacts teens in many of the ways that it was designed to: participants reported improvements in job readiness skills, post-secondary aspirations, and community engagement.

“Overall, these trends are encouraging, particularly because the largest gains were for minority youth,” said Modestino, associate director of the Dukakis Center, and associate professor of public policy, urban affairs and economics. “These initial results have enhanced our understanding of the short-term successes of the Boston SYEP, but they also underscore the need to integrate administrative data on long-term outcomes to evaluate the program’s impact over time.”

According to Modestino, it is unclear whether the self-reported improvements in job readiness, academic aspirations and social engagement will result in increased employment, greater academic achievement, or reductions in delinquent and criminal behavior down the road. Policymakers, she said, are increasingly seeking to use the SYEP as a vehicle to help disadvantaged youth long after their summer experiences.

The most recent phase of the study tests whether the Boston SYEP can affect longer-term outcomes using administrative data from criminal justice records. Specifically, Modestino seeks to assess the impact of early work experience provided by the Boston SYEP on the behavioral outcomes of low-income, inner-city youth and crime.

“In addition to providing youth with additional income, early work experience can affect behavioral outcomes in the short-run by developing ‘soft’ skills such as self-efficacy and impulse control and strengthening social bonds through mentoring and community-based jobs,” she said. “In the long-run, having a summer job can make crime a relatively less attractive option by providing youth with the tools and experience needed to navigate the job market on their own and raising their aspirations for future career options and/or postsecondary education.”

Modestino’s multi-year study has, she says, three “arms:” measuring the baseline impact of the program and whether the effects endure beyond the first year, the effect of multiple years of participation, and the relationship between short-term program effects achieved during the summer and subsequent longer-term outcomes. Longer-term outcomes include improvements in employment and wages, academic achievement, and criminal activity that occur during 2-7 years after participation, she said.

Modestino and her team are currently collecting data on school performance using administrative records from the Boston Public Schools to determine whether the increased academic aspirations observed during the summer jobs program translates into improved school performance in terms of attendance, grade point average, test scores, and college matriculation. Researchers also hope to access wage record data collected by the state to test whether improving job readiness skills through the Boston SYEP leads to greater likelihood of employment and/or higher wages the following year.

“Considering cost and other factors, these types of impacts are likely to be of interest to policymakers deciding whether to expand the SYEP within the city of Boston,” Modestino said. “Similarly, setting a threshold for long-term wage outcomes such as having a job that pays a ‘living’ wage would be in line with the city’s goals to shift the workforce development system away from the traditional rapid job placement model to one that invests in placing people—especially youth—on a career pathway with both wage progression and advancement opportunity.”

Since its inception in 1990, the Boston SYEP has become a national model bringing together city, state, and private funding of nearly $10 million per year to support summer youth employment. The program employs annually about 10,000 youth, between 14 and 24 years old, with roughly 900 local employers. They work a maximum of 25 hours per week for a six-week period that begins just after July 4. Compared to other cities with similar programs—such as Chicago and New York—the Boston SYEP incorporates two distinct program features that may further enhance outcomes, Modestino said: a high share of job placements with private sector employers, and an intensive career-readiness curriculum. Consequently, youth in the Boston SYEP have broader employer networks, expanded knowledge of career paths, enhanced job application and interview techniques, and improved soft skills to successfully maintain employment compared to youth in other cities.

“Because disadvantaged youth face multiple obstacles in obtaining early work experiences, the Boston SYEP may be an important intervention that is improving opportunity,” Modestino said.

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