Cities are using new approaches and forging new partnerships to maximize the impact of summer jobs programs for low-income people.

This post was originally published on Data Smart Cities in October, 2015. It was later expanded with contributions by Elizabeth Reynoso of Living Cities.

As cities are about to launch their 2016 summer jobs programs for youth, local government leaders are stitching together partnerships and funding to create holistic programs that build in wrap-around services like mentorship and childcare, focus on exposing young people to technical and engineering trades, and actively connect young people to private sector jobs and higher education.

Summer jobs programs are more than a PR activity for mayors. They contribute to public safety and the development of a city’s future workforce. In a randomized controlled trial published in the journal Science, researchers studied the impact of a city initiative in Chicago designed to provide young people with 1-on-1 mentorship in addition to private sector employment. What they found was dramatic: participation in the program decreased violent crime by 43% for youth aged 18-24 who were not employed, in training or in school.

The City of Boston has been running their summer youth program for over 20 years and has been making improvements to better serve today’s youth. This February, Boston Mayor Martin Walsh launched Success Link, an online tool for youth applicants to connect with the full menu of services offered by the City’s Department of Youth Engagement and Employment, including connection to peer-led personal and career development workshops, scholarships, civic engagement opportunities, and more.

“This redesigned youth employment portal is a result of listening to the experts, our youth,” said Shari Davis, Director of the City of Boston’s Department of Youth Engagement and Employment, who found that their experience with the process was counterproductive to the intent of the program. “There was too much paperwork, barriers to real-time communication, and challenges to uploading profiles and submitting multiple applications. Now we can focus our human resources on enriching the summer program to create meaningful employment experiences that will influence the youth’s career path throughout life.”

Through our Civic Tech and Data Collaborative, a partnership with Code for America and the National Neighborhood Indicators Project to support local teams of civic technologists, data practitioners and government officials, Shari says they are going to be able to make the tool even better. Through a partnership with the Metropolitan Area Planning Council, Code for America, and MIT, an algorithm will replace the manual matching process that required hours of staff time to connect youth to summer opportunities offered by the cities approximately 200 nonprofits. Youth will receive electronic notifications that they are matched to jobs based on their geographic location and interest. Her staff will then step in to have conversations with the youth applicants if the matches aren’t accepted to identify alternative opportunities.

At last fall’s Project on Municipal Innovation - Advisory Group (PMI-AG), mayoral chiefs of staff from Louisville, Los Angeles, and Chicago shared their strategies:

In Louisville, the city rolled out its Zones of Hope and Right Turn programs in five neighborhoods to employ young black men in areas with high crime rates and those exiting the juvenile justice system to high tech manufacturing jobs that drive the state’s new economy.

Technical trades are the focus of the City of Los Angeles’ summer jobs program. The program connects young people with city jobs related to science and engineering to reinforce the importance of continuing their STEM education. Participants attend a college fair at the end of the program where simple sign-ups for certificate training programs create bridges to higher education.

However, creating sustainable youth workforce programs remains a challenge. Some key areas that cities struggle with are:

  1. Private sector collaboration. City leaders note 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.

  2. Consistent, reliable funding. Funding for starting, sustaining, and expanding summer jobs programs is a challenge in every city. New York City is 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 AmeriCorps funding with other state and city grants for integrative programming. Some, like Chicago, have filled the gap left by the lack of federal support with millions from the city’s general fund.

  3. Supporting disconnected youth and their children. According to Kisha Bird at the Center for Law and Social Policy, 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.

Municipal leaders agree that summer jobs programs can contribute to lifelong economic opportunities, but these worthwhile initiatives require long-term funding and partnerships that extend beyond the walls of city hall. While local government can provide work experiences, coordinate programs, and tap federal and state funding, anchor institutions and the private sector have a stake in supporting successful strategies that are necessary to bridge the transition from youth to adulthood employment that outlast most mayoral terms. With these building blocks in place, cities have a far better chance of getting more young people into summer jobs and ultimately move the needle on outcomes for disconnected youth.