The 14 to 24 age bracket is marked by critical transitions as young people begin to make decisions about the future. Early employment is a type of formative experience that can have significant benefits for young people’s trajectories into adulthood: in their first or first two jobs, young people can begin to develop connections with employers, professional background and soft skills that can be used in multiple areas of their lives. Unfortunately, employment data has shown that the likelihood of youth and young adult unemployment generally increases as household income decreases.
Over the past decade, federal and local policymakers have increasingly focused on using Summer Youth Employment Programs (SYEP) to help combat high youth unemployment rates. , especially those from low-income backgrounds who face greater barriers to employment. SYEPs are municipal programs that provide eligible youth, often from low-income families, with part-time paid employment during the summer months. Participants may also benefit from mentoring, life skills training or other support services. SYEPs have had particular appeal because of their perceived ability to achieve multiple policy goals at the same time, including providing participants with a constructive way to spend free time outside of school, which deters them from adopting riskier behaviors and promotes the healthy development of young people. In fact, researchers have observed that some of the participant outcomes that SYEPs most consistently affect are related to criminal justice involvement.
Julia Breitman, Assistant Commissioner for Youth Workforce Development in the New York City Department of Youth and Community Development, shares the importance of research to ensure the city’s SYEP best serves young people in New York: “Working closely with our research partners has allowed us to understand where the program has the greatest impact, knowledge that is essential when public funds are limited. Long-term studies have shown us which industries lead to higher potential and educational earnings, and which youth groups benefit the most from our programs. Research has helped us focus funds on at-risk populations, shape our programming, and ultimately advocate for needed program expansion.
In a new publication, “The Promises of Summer Youth Employment Programs: Lessons from randomized evaluations,” J-PAL North America summarizes 13 academic papers covering randomized evaluations of summer youth employment programs in four major US cities: Boston, Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. The results of these studies confirm that summer jobs for young people have various advantages:
- SYEPs provide employment and increase incomes for young people who might otherwise have difficulty finding summer employment. SYEPs disproportionately serve youth from low-income households or who identify as black or Hispanic, groups that typically face higher than average barriers to entering the workforce.
- SYEPs systematically reduce involvement in the criminal justice system for youth participants. Researchers found reductions in rates of arrest, charge, conviction, and/or incarceration, with evidence indicating effects that occurred both during the program and at least a year after. Youth most at risk of socially costly consequences, such as involvement with the criminal justice system, suffered the greatest effects.
- Evidence for the role of SYEPs in improving educational outcomes is mixed. On average, in the studies that showed positive effects on educational outcomes, those who benefited were young people of legal school age and young people with a higher rate of school absenteeism before participation in the program.
- There is promising evidence that SYEPs have positive effects on a range of youth developmental outcomes, including socio-emotional skills, educational and career aspirations, and work habits associated with employment readiness.
This evidence review is intended to serve as a resource for policy makers looking for evidence-based ways to serve young people in their communities. It examines the effects of SYEPs on a wide range of outcomes and indicates where particular populations of young participants may benefit most. In addition to summarizing policy implications from the existing evidence base, the review also outlines key open questions about the various components of the program model, strategies for establishing longer-term employment outcomes, and the impact of repeated participation in SYEP for young people. Future research in these areas can help continue to inform policy makers on how to structure SYEPs most effectively.
Readers interested in learning more about the review of evidence and research behind youth summer employment programs are invited to visit J-PAL’s summer employment youth program website North America or contact Kalila Jackson-Spieker, J-PAL North America Senior Policy Manager.
J-PAL North America is a regional office of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), a global research center based at MIT.