The D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program has strong support in the community, as well as in the Fenty administration. And his is not the first.
Giving kids jobs is good for the public image — better even than cutting ribbons at new libraries and swimming pools. It’s a sure, relatively cheap way to make some voters and future voters happy — so long as it delivers what it promises.
And it can, in fact, potentially do all the things the DC SYEP website claims — help participants develop the skills, attitudes and commitment needed to succeed in today’s work world, expose them to career choices, put money in their pockets, etc.
But the program has a history of administrative and financial troubles. These stem from a long-standing preference for maximizing enrollments, combined with a certain casualness about budgetary limitations.
So I’ve been curious to know what the prospects are for this summer. A recent oversight hearing by the DC Council’s Housing and Workforce Development Committee gave us a preview.
I was impressed by what Joe Walsh, head of the Department of Employment Services, told the committee DOES had done to address some of the most notorious lapses in the recent past.
DOES has apparently taken the Council’s cap on enrollment seriously. It’s provided job assignments for 21,285 youth, projecting that no-shows will bring the total down to the statutory 21,000 limit — perhaps lower.
It’s also significantly improved its process for ensuring that all enrolled youth are D.C. residents in the right age group (14-21 years old) and eligible to work. Information applicants provided was checked against existing databases, e.g., Social Security Administration, Department of Motor Vehicles and public school records.
Applicants without a government-issued photo ID had to show up in person to present other documentation. This ought to pretty well take care of past problems with jobs awarded to Virginia and Maryland residents.
Assignments to the Mayor’s Conservation Corps have been cut nearly in half and the number of work sites increased. Both these measures are intended to improve supervision.
Last year, observers noted large groups of Conservation Corps youth (easily identified by their blue tee shirts) lolling around or strolling down streets, with only a few actually doing clean-up. And then there were the kids who took time out to get high.
What’s less clear is whether DOES has sufficiently addressed the perennial problem of job quality. I suppose the answer depends on what one considers a high-quality job. If it’s just a jobs that actually involves ongoing work, performed under some reasonable degree of supervision, then DOES seems to be on the case.
Walsh said that all prospective employers were required to provide job descriptions and that the supervisors they’d designated got training. DOES staff visited their sites, though it’s not clear what they were checking beyond compliance with regulatory requirements like accessibility for people with disabilities. I infer there will be some additional monitoring while youth are onsite.
DOES also plans to improve its evaluation of the program. Last year, it relied entirely on a survey of participating youth. This year, it’s also going to do a work readiness assessment. That should provide an objective measure of how well the program achieves one of its major goals.
The department’s still got a way to go on others.
For example, well over half the jobs lined up are with the Department of Parks and Recreation, the Department of the Environment (home of the Conservation Corps), the public school system or another D.C. government entity. Community-based organizations account for nearly 6,600 more. Only 1,021 are with private, for-profit employers.
This undoubtedly reflects the relative ease (or difficulty) of lining up employers willing to take on the responsibility of training and supervising a bunch of teenagers, many of whom have no workplace experience whatever. But it would seem to skew the career opportunities participants get exposed to. Do we really want to expose so many youth to a future of picking up trash and weeding?
I understand that the very high percentage of public-sector and other public service jobs is common among summer youth employment programs. I guess it’s part of the trade-off for seeking to provide jobs for as many youth as a program can get funds for. I’m still of mixed minds about this.
But I feel a whole lot more confident about the District’s program than I did at this time last year.