Philadelphia wants its young people to have more screen time. This year, the city’s summer jobs program is shifting to an online learning and experience model.

Young residents will have the chance to follow three tracks: digital branding and identity, financial literacy and career exposure. They’ll proceed at their own pace, but they’ll receive instruction along the way from program organizers and any of about five dozen participating employers.

“Employers who normally can’t host a young person can be a career coach and give direct feedback,” said Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend, president of the Philadelphia Youth Network, which manages the program.

It may not be ideal, but it counts as “a win,” as Fulmore-Townsend said. Faced with sudden drops in revenues, cities around the country are cutting or canceling their summer job programs. According to a National League of Cities (NLC) survey of mostly large cities, 30 percent will eliminate their summer jobs programs altogether this year.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed zeroing out funding for summer jobs, which last year employed 75,000 young people. Members of the city council have lobbied to preserve the program, but the city is facing a tax revenue shortfall exceeding $7 billion this fiscal year and next.

“The historic notion of summer youth employment requires people gathering. We don't know when we're going to be able to do gatherings,” de Blasio said last week. “Second, it costs a substantial amount of money. We’re in a massive budget crisis.”

In cities that can keep the programs operating, it’s not clear what participants — who range in age from 14 to 24 but are mostly between 16 and 19 years old — will be able to do. Aside from the formal jobs programs, private employers are going to have far less need for labor.

Cities are cutting back on parks and recreation programs that normally hire lots of young people in the summer. Traditional sources of teen employment, such as shopping malls and amusement parks, will either shut down this summer or curtail their operations. All of that is against a backdrop of mass unemployment that’s certain to reach into double digits when official statistics for April are released on Friday.

“Of course, that has major implications for young people, who won’t have the opportunity to gain workforce skills, to earn money or even to support their families,” said Audrey Hutchinson, director of education and expanded learning at the NLC Institute for Youth, Education, and Families.

Fewer Jobs, More Learning

The percentage of individuals aged 16 to 19 participating in summer employment has dropped over the past 30 years. In the late 1980s, about 70 percent worked at summer jobs. In recent years, the share has been more like four out of 10, according to Education Next.

Conversely, the share of kids enrolled in classes has gone up. About 40 percent have been enrolled in school during the summer in recent years, compared with 25 percent in 1998 and 10 percent in 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Summer jobs programs themselves have been trying to offer more of a career or college readiness approach. Traditionally, the point was to reduce delinquent behavior, but lately the emphasis has shifted to helping foster real job skills. Career pathways programs recruit through schools and help kids think about potential careers through internships and other hands-on experiences.

“It’s been moving from keeping kids off the street, which is how the programs began in the '60s, to connecting more with schools and career development,” said Robert Schwartz, a senior research fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Schwartz helped develop a plan in New York City, which aimed to shift 20,000 kids into a career-pathways program next year, working through schools and with a network of community groups.

But, so much for that.

“Basically, the city just zeroed the program out,” Schwartz said. “There are a lot of kids in New York whose parents are suddenly unemployed who would have maybe been the only breadwinners in the households. Now, you’ve got 75,000 kids on the streets with not much to do.”

Shifting Online

The hope for summer jobs, said Hutchinson of the National League of Cities, has been to help young people pick up skills they’ll need throughout the careers, such as teamwork, critical thinking, communication and how to dress properly.

All those things are harder to pick up online. Instead of personal interaction, there’s social distancing and isolation.

That’s the reality these days. But that’s why programs like the one in Philadelphia are promising.

Participants aren’t going to get rich. Young people who complete all three of the available tracks in Philadelphia can earn a maximum of $595. Still, rather than restlessness and boredom, they’ll be able to pick up different sets of skills that would be needed in a digital economy anyway, and which certainly are vital at a time of increased virtual work.

“It’s better than nothing,” Hutchinson said. “Because of the social distancing, it’s hard to bring them together in ways that build social capacity.”

Other cities are looking at various models of online programming, or hiring young people to work as contact tracers as health departments attempt to track the spread of coronavirus.

There’s certainly demand. Last summer, the Philadelphia Youth Network served about 8,800 young people. Last week, when the network opened up applications for its new online programs, it quickly received more than 6,000 requests.

“Locally, we are not looking to cancel summer employment,” said Fulmore-Townsend, “despite the challenges every city in the country is fighting.”