Testimony on Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP)

Lazar Treschan

Testimony to the Committee on Youth Services of the Council of the City of New York
February 24, 2016

Issue:  Oversight: Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP)

Recommendation:  Expand SYEP to universal service levels and enact key reforms

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today about summer jobs for New York City Youth.  My name is Lazar Treschan and I am the Director of Youth Policy for the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), an organization that conducts research and advocacy to advance public policy for low-income New Yorkers.  Yesterday, CSS released a new report proposing a universal summer jobs program for all New York City youth seeking a job.  Our proposal would expand service to universal levels, and make key enhancements to SYEP that will improve outcomes for youth, CBO service providers, and employers.  I will summarize the key points in our proposal in this testimony.

Last year, nearly 55,000 young people participated in the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), through which they worked for seven weeks, learned new skills, and earned real wages, many for the first time.  According to a study of SYEP, the youth that participate will see better grades and exams scores when they return to school in the fall, along with decreased chances of getting arrested or into trouble.  To put it simply, work works, when it comes to better outcomes for our kids.

What’s unfortunate is that another 55,000 young people applied for the program and were denied slots due to funding limits.  Unless they were able to find a job on their own – something that data shows is harder than ever for younger workers – they saw diminished school and life outcomes after the summer.  The phenomenon known as “summer melt” reduces hard-earned gains made during the school year for idle students.

We spend nearly $20,000 per year on public funds for each high school student, yet see a good percentage of our schools’ hard work melted away over the summer months.  But summer jobs can counter this, not only maintaining students’ skill levels but increasing them.  In addition, summer work offers room to explore careers and develop interests, connections, and a sense of a pathway for what might come after high school.

Given their overwhelming return, we can no longer afford not to invest in summer jobs for every young person who seeks the opportunity. Turning away young people from a program that solidifies their school-year learning, offers them a chance to contribute to our economy and local institutions, and gets them career-ready is too sensible an investment to pass up.  It’s time to make summer jobs universal, an option available to every young person who wants to work.

Yesterday, the Community Service Society of New York is published a proposal for a new, universal Summer Internship Program, that enhances the current SYEP.  In her recent State of the City speech, City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito announced new investments to enhance SYEP—we recognize her leadership on this issue, and seek her support to move toward universal programming. 

Such an expansion is also an opportunity to improve the program.  Right now, SYEP is too disconnected from a student’s experience the other 10 months of the year.  Instead of just being a job, the program should be an internship, which builds off the skills and interests developed during the previous school year, leading into the next one; in essence, an extension of the school year.  New York City could become the first city in the nation to offer a 12-month high school program: 10 months of school, followed by an optional two-month summer employment experience.

Unlike the current SYEP, a Summer Internship Program that is more school-connected could offer distinct, sequenced job experiences for young people at different stages.  After 9th grade, the youngest participants would be in a program oriented around community service, rather than a formal job, in which they would learn about working in teams, showing up on time, and dealing with supervisors, in a relatively low-stakes setting, such as a public service project.  After 10th grade, participants would “graduate” into entry-level work positions in nonprofit organizations, summer camps, and museums.  After 11th and 12th grade, they would be “promoted” into more formal private, public and nonprofit jobs, which would be connected to the skills and experiences they have demonstrated during the school year, both in the classroom and in interviews with potential summer employers. 

None of this type of school-year planning currently exists, due in large part to the annual funding uncertainty around summer jobs, and its current method of administration.  But making the program universal and guaranteed would allow the community-based organizations (CBOs) that provide the program much more time to get to know their youth participants and potential employers, develop jobs, and embed themselves in high schools.

The promise of a paid summer experience should provide an additional strong incentive for students not to drop out from high school.  But youth who have already done so should also be able to participate.  But unlike now, where a 15 year-old high school sophomore might work alongside a 22 year-old young adult, the service to “disconnected youth” would be distinct, with a set-aside of jobs that were targeted more toward their specific needs, and more likely to help them get back into the workforce.

A move to a universal summer internship program would benefit many: students, would gain skills, experiences, and real wages; schools would not be forced to cope with “summer melt”; public institutions and private sector employers would gain the energy and efforts of so many young workers. 

For those who believe college should be a greater focus than work for young people, we have good news.  Research shows that employment during the high school years, can increase the likelihood of college, as students become more familiar with why they should attend college, and are likely to make better choices about the types of degree programs that will help them start good careers.

We have made great strides in advancing access to early education through universal pre-kindergarten education.  It’s time for the same type of effort for older youth making the tricky transition to adulthood, in a labor market that is harder than ever for young people.  A universal summer internship program will not be cheap, but it would cost less than our recent pre-K expansion, so we know that it’s possible.  All it takes is the will to do it.

Our report can be found here

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