How to Build a Successful Summer Jobs Program

If done right, employing kids can improve their academic performance as well as reduce violence, incarceration and mortality rates.
by | July 27, 2016
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel helps participants of the One Summer Plus program paint a house. (Twitter/The Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel)

While some teens found jobs to keep them busy (and hopefully out of trouble) last summer, 2.8 million were unemployed.

With 7.8 million adult Americans out of work, a quarter of whom have been unemployed for over six months, the opportunities for teens have shriveled up in recent years. Some cities, however, have made aggressive attempts to change this with a resurgence of summer jobs programs.

Dedicated federal funding for summer jobs programs ended in 1998. Since then, many local initiatives got the ax. But cities have used the 2009 federal stimulus package to bring them back.

Research shows that summer jobs programs can improve participants’ academic attendance and performance as well as reduce violence, incarceration and mortality rates.

Summer jobs programs place teens in workplaces where they typically work five hours a day for five to seven weeks. The public or quasi-public agencies running the programs typically subsidize unpaid jobs in the public and nonprofit sectors while also seeking paid positions in private companies. The work can range from filing documents to troubleshooting computer issues. While programs usually prioritize vulnerable teens who might otherwise struggle in the labor market, the design, implementation and funding of such programs varies from city to city.

“It’s a complex operation involving multiple actors, multiple steps and a huge amount of critical detail,” said Martha Ross, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution, who co-authored a recent report on best practices for summer jobs programs.

Based on a survey, Brookings identified core practices of high-quality summer jobs programs that further participants’ growth and provide value to employers. Here are a few of them:

Strong partnerships with employers

Summer jobs programs can only impact as many young people as they employ, and engaging the private sector is pivotal for expanding the scale without breaking the government’s bank account. Employers are more willing to pay teens for entry-level positions. On top of that, a mayor's enthusiasm in being the chief promoter also goes a long way. Louisville, Ky., Mayor Greg Fischer is one who actively brands his cities’ summer jobs program and recruits new employers. Since he launched SummerWorks in 2011, the program has placed over 6,500 youth in jobs.

Federal funding

Funding is the biggest problem for summer jobs programs. Budget uncertainty can seriously hamper program planning and outreach. The most successful programs found ways to leverage federal funding. The federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act is one potential source for this purpose, as is the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families program and the Community Development Block Grant program. State, local and private dollars are all additions to this key ingredient.

Ranking and matching

Strong programs tend to have a clear mechanism for sorting youth into groups based on their age and work readiness. They can then match participants to jobs of varying levels of responsibility and complexity. In some cases, building a separate program for a subgroup is helpful. Chicago’s One Summer Plus program, for instance, targeted youth who had extensive school absences or involvement with the juvenile justice system and assigned them additional mentors trained in trauma-informed care and conflict resolution.

Education about work and money

Good programs pair professional development, such as interview training and workplace etiquette, with job-based learning. Youth participants’ financial literacy -- knowing what to do with their new income -- is also crucial. San Francisco’s partnership with the MyPath savings program, for example, teaches teens how to open a savings account, develop a savings goal and set up direct deposit for their paychecks. As a result, youth are able to accumulate significant savings and develop regular savings habits.

Sufficient staff

Summer jobs programs are better when they have people with the necessary skills deployed in clearly delineated roles. Boston, for example, boasts a team of 23 career specialists and four employer account managers, anchoring their outreach to students and employers. Mentors are a key part of the team, not only as middlemen between the youth and the employers but also as positive adult figures that teens can approach for advice and support.

A playbook

As programs mature (and sometimes get cut because of funding issues), governments should develop tools that make it simple for people to come in and start (or restart) a summer jobs program. The Worksite Toolkit, developed by the Philadelphia Youth Network, is one example. It offers guidelines for worksite orientations, workplace activities, job descriptions and assessment forms. According to the Brookings report, “these guides minimize unnecessary reinvention of the wheel and save valuable program staff and workplace supervisor time.”

Year-round opportunities

A six-week taste of paid employment should be integrated with long-term programming to have lasting impact. New York City offers opportunities for those completing its program to apply for year-round employment. Applicants are randomly selected to work in community-based organizations and participate in career-readiness training during the school year.

Amber Tong | Intern |