Summer youth employment: Louisville, KY
- Short-term paid employment: Youth employment and internship programs connect young adults (mostly high school students) to paid jobs. These employment experiences generally occur during the summer, but can also occur at other intervals of the school year. Students are generally paid hourly, though rates may vary by employer.
- Exposing youth to professional environments: Programs primarily seek to provide participants with exposure to professional settings and to begin developing skills to maintain stable employment and build careers. Some programs combine formal work experience and summer learning, including time spent in the classroom and real-world opportunities to apply those lessons. Jobs typically span the public, private, and nonprofit sectors.
- Coaching and mentorship to facilitate professional growth: Robust youth employment and internship programs typically generally include formal supervision and frequent opportunities for feedback. Centrally administered programs (such as ones run by a school district or chamber of commerce) may also provide an additional coach or mentor — often an alumnus of the same program and high school — who can help students troubleshoot any challenges and identify opportunities for improvement or growth.
- Supplementing summer experience with school-year skill building: Effective summer youth employment and internship programs typically include professional skills workshops and programming during the school year. This can include help identifying and applying for specific summer opportunities, drafting resumes, and communicating in a business setting. Some workshops or lessons may be delivered by employers, who can also use the setting to meet students and answer questions.
A systematic review and multiple randomized control trials indicate strong short-term effects on wages, employment, and academic achievement in some cases; however, further studies are needed to replicate the effects and demonstrate long-term impacts.
A 2022 systematic review of 13 randomized control trials found that summer youth employment programs can boost earnings and employment among youth, especially among those who may otherwise have difficulty finding employment. Summer youth employment programs can also reduce involvement in the criminal justice system for at least a year. The review found that there were mixed outcomes in improving educational outcomes.
A 2019 systematic review found that summer youth employment programs increase earnings during participation (these effects are not sustained), and may decrease arrests due to violent crime up to 17 months after participation.
Results and accomplishments
SummerWorks participants are 6.9% more likely to graduate from high school than students in a control group. Among Black men, participants are 10.7% more likely to graduate from high school, and among individuals receiving free- or reduced-priced lunch, 7.5% more likely. The results are statistically significant using non-random matched comparison.
SummerWorks participants are 11.2% (statistically significant using non-random matched comparison) more likely to be enrolled in post-secondary education a year after graduating high school than non-participants.
SummerWorks participants are 9.9% (statistically significant using non-random matched comparison) more likely to be employed after high school graduation than non-participants.
SummerWorks has secured summer employment opportunities for participants with 240 different employers across the Louisville area, including GE Appliances, Humana, and Jefferson County Public Schools.
Among the 2018 SummerWorks employer cohort, 36.8% hired a SummerWorks participant to work for them after the conclusion of the program. All 84 employers said they would recommend the program to other employers, and 84.2% said the program was beneficial to their company.
- Outpacing the nation in youth employment: Before the Great Recession, Louisville tracked just behind the national average in youth employment rates. Once SummerWorks launched in 2011, Louisville experienced rapid youth job growth. By 2017, nearly half of young adults seeking work in Louisville were employed, compared to 41 percent nationally. Youth employment now exceeds pre-recession levels in Louisville by seven percentage points.
- Opening pathways to upward mobility: A 2019 impact report on SummerWorks indicates that by connecting young adults with professionally vetted summer jobs, the program creates a series of future opportunities for upward mobility. SummerWorks students are more likely to graduate from high school, enroll in postsecondary institutions, and secure stable employment at higher rates than comparable non-participants. The impact is especially significant for students from neighborhoods with low average incomes, who make up three quarters of SummerWorks participants. Importantly, while the results from the study were statistically significant, the methodology used was non-random matched comparison (a quasi-experimental method used because an RCT was not plausible in this setting).
- Scaling up direct placements: SummerWorks seeks to help as many Louisville young adults as possible secure high-quality summer employment. In 2011, SummerWorks placed 216 Louisville youth into jobs. By 2018, that number was 1,003 direct placements. This also includes a significant uptick in the number of partner-employers: from 33 in 2011 up to 113 by 2017.
- Boosting direct placements during COVID: Leading up to the summer of 2020, COVID-19 caused many employers to cancel plans to participate in SummerWorks. Still, SummerWorks placed a record 1,079 students in 80 organizations. This included doubling the number of students sponsored by SummerWorks, which was achieved by raising an additional $1.4 million to supplement its typical operating budget. Amidst the extreme disruptions caused by the pandemic, SummerWorks helped students secure $655,000 in wages.
Between 2007 and 2011, the young adult employment rate in Louisville (KY) dropped by nearly 10 percent. Leveraging legislation passed in response to the Great Recession, the local workforce board sponsored employment opportunities for 500 young adults in 2009 and for 750 in 2010. By 2011, however, the funding for even this limited youth employment program ran out, and the program faced closure.
In 2011, Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration partnered with Kentuckiana Works, the local workforce board, to launch SummerWorks. The program connects young adults between 16 and 21 years old to summer employment opportunities. In addition to placing young adults with government, non-profit, and private sector organizations, SummerWorks provides them with job training and career counseling services through its partnerships with Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS) and YouthBuild Louisville.
Keys to the program’s success included vocal support from Mayor Fischer, which increased engagement from local stakeholders; buy-in from local business leaders, which boosted awareness of the program and allowed SummerWorks to offer higher quality jobs; a close partnership with JCPS to build a strong pipeline of prospective students and employers; the launch of a digital portal, which made job training and placement more efficient; and an increasingly diversified funding stream that allowed the program to grow.
The biggest challenges faced by the program included rising wages in the service industry, difficulty securing employers matching students’ career tracks, and limited funding available for “work-and-learn” opportunities.
What was the challenge?
- A decade of youth employment disinvestment: In 1998, the federal Workforce Investment Act redirected funding away from summer youth employment programs. As a result, Louisville, like many cities, dissolved its program. Even without federal funding, some civic leaders, like those at local workforce board KentuckianaWorks, pushed for the program's revival using local funds, citing successful, locally funded programs in Boston and Baltimore.
- Financial crisis leads to high unemployment rates among young adults: In the wake of the Great Recession, employment for young adults (ages 16-21) in Louisville dropped by nearly 10 points between 2007-2011 to 40 percent. The employment challenge was especially acute in ZIP codes with low average incomes and among Black youth seeking work, who had an unemployment rate of more than 25 percent — double the rate of their white peers.
- Local workforce board explores summer youth employment options: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 allocated $1.2 billion in federal funding for summer youth employment programs. In response to this new funding stream, the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) Workforce Development Council, which was led by KentuckianaWorks’ Executive Director Michael Gritton, convened summer youth employment program leaders from several cities to discuss best practices. Using learnings and funding strategies from the convening (such as how to best leverage U.S. Department of Labor and TANF dollars), KentuckianaWorks sponsored 500 young adults to work in the summer of 2009 and 750 in 2010. Still, there was no formal program to address youth unemployment comprehensively in Louisville.
- New mayor faces youth summer employment crossroads: Greg Fischer was elected Mayor of Louisville in 2011. From the beginning of his first term, Mayor Fischer sought to address Louisville’s troubling youth employment rates, which mirrored national trends. While Congress had allocated a small amount of federal stimulus funding in 2009 to youth employment programs, by the time Mayor Fischer took office, those funds were depleted. Mayor Fischer thus faced a clear choice: use local funds to invest in a summer youth employment program, or allow it to once again dissolve.
- Workforce board and mayor align: Soon after taking office, Mayor Fischer began working closely with Michael Gritton of KentuckianaWorks and the USCM Workforce Development Council. Quickly, Mayor Fischer committed to building on KentuckianaWorks’ momentum in reviving a summer youth employment program, regardless of federal support. Mayor Fischer used his mayoral platform to publicly emphasize the value of a youth summer employment program and prioritized researching how the city could launch and sustain one.
What was the solution?
- Connecting young adults to summer employment: SummerWorks connects young adults between 16 and 21 years old to summer employment opportunities. The program, administered by Louisville’s local workforce board, KentuckianaWorks, secures commitments from public, private, and nonprofit employers to hire local young adults, the majority of whom are high school students from neighborhoods with high youth unemployment rates.
- Direct placements and student sponsorships: SummerWorks directly places roughly 1,000 students each summer in high-quality jobs. For nonprofits and government agencies, KentuckianaWorks SummerWorks sponsors the student (usually at $10/hour for 30 hours/week. Employment typically lasts 7 weeks). Private companies pay varying wages (typically ranging from $10-$15/hour).
- Partnering with Jefferson County Public Schools: To directly place students in summer jobs, KentuckianaWorks partners with Jefferson County high schools. As part of this partnership, JCPS teachers and career coaches help to enroll students in SummerWorks, assisting them as they register for the program’s online platform, KentuckianaEarns, and providing guidance throughout the job-matching process.
- Summer coaching and training: In addition to support from high school career coaches, KentuckianaWorks contracts with YouthBuild Louisville, a branch of a national nonprofit that provides young adult career counseling and job training. In Louisville, YouthBuild recruits participants, runs marketing campaigns, and provides short-term job coaches throughout the summer (each coach has a caseload of roughly 20 students). Coaches conduct site visits, help troubleshoot any problems, and provide ongoing soft skills training.
What factors drove success?
- Vocal support from the mayor: Since he took office in 2011, Mayor Greg Fischer has been a vocal champion of SummerWorks, including allocating $100,000 to launch the program in his first budget. Each year, Mayor Fischer hosts press conferences to open and close the SummerWorks period, personally conducts outreach to prospective employers, and regularly meets with KentuckianaWorks leadership to discuss the program’s impact. This approach has turned SummerWorks into one of the highest-profile mayoral initiatives in Louisville, resulting in heightened engagement from employers, schools, and young adults.
- Securing buy-in from local leaders across sectors: Mayor Fischer, KentuckianaWorks Executive Director Michael Gritton, and their teams have cultivated a wide range of engaged local leaders, especially within the business community. Support from the public school system has raised awareness among students, while engagement with the business community has allowed SummerWorks to offer more high-quality summer jobs.
- Leveraging the KentuckianaWorks-JCPS relationship: In 2015, KentuckianaWorks was a close partner of JCPS in transitioning most high schools to a career academy model, which places each student in a career-focused academic track. KentuckianaWorks leveraged this relationship to further integrate SummerWorks into the school system, building momentum for activities like in-school registration events and training workshops. Doing so has helped SummerWorks build strong pipelines of prospective students and employers.
- Launching a digital portal: As SummerWorks sought to scale, it launched KentuckianaEarns, an online platform that allows students to register for the program, delivers required pre-application online career skills training, and includes thousands of job postings. By digitizing this process, SummerWorks reaches more students while making the job training and placement process more efficient.
- Diversified funding streams: To fund operations, the online platform, and direct placements, SummerWorks relied for several years on $500,000 each summer from Louisville Metro Government, along with roughly $500,000 from leading philanthropies and private donors. In 2021 Louisville Metro Government doubled its investment to $1 million a year, which will substantially increase the program’s reach beginning in the summer of 2022.
What were the major obstacles?
- Rising wages in the service industry: As wages rise for teens in fast food restaurants and retail stores in a tight labor market (often between $12-$16 an hour), some employers participating in SummerWorks cannot afford to match those rates. With many students prioritizing short-term earnings, SummerWorks faces ongoing challenges in growing its summer cohorts.
- Securing employer-partners matching student career tracks: While some major employers, like GE Appliances and Humana, have consistently hired SummerWorks participants, in recent years, program leaders have struggled to expand the employer pool to add more roles that match students’ high school career tracks. SummerWorks leaders report that despite a significant outreach effort, many potential employers are hesitant to pay and supervise high school employees who lack previous experience in corporate settings, particularly before they turn 18.
- Limited funding for “work-and-learn” opportunities: SummerWorks seeks to sponsor an increasing number of students for “work-and-learn” opportunities, which combine classroom-based projects and courses with professional development and exposure to the workplace. However, the program has been unable to identify significant new funding streams to support the effort and to increase wages for students (so as to be more competitive with retail and fast food jobs).
After Congress passes the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, federal funds are eliminated for summer youth employment programs like the one in Louisville. For the next decade, Louisville would have no formal mechanism to connect young adults with career-focused summer employment.
As the Great Recession strikes, youth employment drops steadily each year from 2007 (48%) to 2011 (40%), in line with a national trend. Black youth are disproportionately impacted by the job market contraction and experience a slower recovery than their white peers.
As Congress finalizes plans to include summer youth employment funds in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), KentuckianaWorks Executive Director Michael Gritton helps to organize a USCM Workforce Development Council convening. Leveraging learnings from that convening, KentuckianaWorks utilizes roughly $1 million in ARRA funds to place 500 students in summer jobs in 2009. The next year, the Department of Labor advises local workforce development teams to use TANF funds to support the program; KentuckianaWorks uses that approach to send 750 youth to work in the summer of 2010.
Building on momentum from KentuckianaWorks’ experiences the previous two summers, newly elected Mayor Greg Fischer allocates $100,000 from the city’s general budget to launch SummerWorks. “There is no better way to make a difference in the life of a young person than to hire them and put them to work,” Mayor Fischer said. “They will learn real-world lessons that they will remember all their lives - while building Louisville's talent pipeline to the future.”
After being designated a Next Generation Learning Community by the Ford Fund, which comes with $100,000 for implementation support, Jefferson County Public Schools converts 15 of its 21 high schools to a new model prioritizing focused career tracks and professional development. Meanwhile, KentuckianaWorks and the Louisville-area chamber of commerce convene local business leaders to help JCPS design market-appropriate curricula for its new academies.
As SummerWorks shifts its focus to serving mostly JCPS students (it had previously served a higher share of unemployed and unenrolled adults between 18-21), KentuckianaWorks hires national non-profit YouthBuild Louisville to support marketing, recruitment, and career development and training services.
As SummerWorks integrates more closely with JCPS high schools, it places a record 1,003 young adults directly into summer jobs, up from a previous high of 771 the year before. SummerWorks employers report positive experiences: all 84 said they would recommend the program to other Louisville employers; 84.2% said SummerWorks was beneficial to their company; and 36.8% hired a SummerWorks participant to work for them after the program ended.
The Kentucky Center for Statistics, a state agency focused on workforce and education evaluation, publishes an impact report on SummerWorks’ first eight years of operation. The report shows that SummerWorks has made a significant impact on young adults in Louisville, including higher high school graduation rates, higher enrollment rates in post-secondary education, and more stable employment, especially among students of color.
SummerWorks places 1,079 students directly in jobs, despite the COVID-19 pandemic hampering in-school enrollment efforts and application support. Those students work for 80 different employers, earning a collective $655,000.
How did leaders confront the problem?
- A youth employment crisis: In the wake of the global financial crisis, youth unemployment surged in Louisville, especially among young adults of color from low-income families. Local civic leaders identified this as a major challenge both to local families and to Louisville’s future talent pipeline.
- Local workforce board convenes experts: KentuckianaWorks Executive Director Michael Gritton, who also served as the President of the USCM Workforce Development Council in 2009, recognized that several cities with the strongest talent pipelines had robust summer youth employment programs. Gritton leveraged his network to convene leaders of those programs, who could share best practices and strategies. KentuckianaWorks used those learnings to run an experimental program in 2009 and 2010.
- New mayor formalizes program, cultivates buy-in among key stakeholders: In his first month as mayor, Greg Fischer publicly committed to growing a summer youth employment program in Louisville. To demonstrate the city’s commitment, Mayor Fischer allocated $100,000 to the program in 2011 and began personally assisting in fundraising efforts to the local philanthropic community.
How was the strategy designed?
- Connecting employers and students: To help more young adults secure summer employment as the economy slowly recovered, KentuckianaWorks leveraged its relationships with JCPS and the Louisville business community to create a formal pathway connecting students to employers. On one end, SummerWorks cultivates a pool of employers willing to provide high-quality, career-focused job opportunities. On the other end, SummerWorks recruits students who can take advantage of those opportunities while earning a substantial paycheck.
- Providing in-school career support and on-site coaching: To engage as many students as possible, SummerWorks partners with JCPS to deliver in-school recruitment (including a comprehensive enrollment strategy), along with some career development support (such as resume writing and interviewing) developed by YouthBuild Louisville. Meanwhile, YouthBuild Louisville also provides short-term job coaches to SummerWorks participants for the duration of their employment.
- Work-and-learn opportunities: To more closely align with the JCPS career-focused high schools, which launched in 2015, SummerWorks now prioritizes connecting students to learning-centered opportunities. For instance, in the summer of 2020, SummerWorks ran a Tech Academy, which paid 331 participants an average of $750 each to take online courses in areas like computer coding and graphic design. Similarly, SummerWorks partnered with local nonprofit TECH-nique to run the Technology Entrepreneurship Create Change program, which paid 40 students (mostly women of color) to design and build mobile apps that benefited their communities. Such programs provide crucial professional learning opportunities while still allowing students to earn an income.
How was the plan implemented?
- Raising public and private funds: Faced with significant fundraising requirements and no federal funding, Mayor Fischer began a robust effort to secure local public and private dollars. After a founder of Humana, Kentucky’s largest company, made a major donation, the local philanthropic community quickly rallied around the program. With baseline funding in place, SummerWorks could begin employer and participant recruitment.
- Cultivating a network of employers: In its first year of operation, 2011, SummerWorks used outreach from the mayor and the broader KentuckianaWorks network to place all 200 participants in local non-profit and government agencies. As the program sought to expand in the following years, Mayor Fischer called on local business executives to donate to the program. With momentum building, several major companies contributed not just funding, but also provided summer jobs, including Norton Healthcare, UPS, and Thorntons (a local convenience store chain). Soon thereafter, Humana, GE Appliances, and Kroger volunteered to offer positions.
- Recruiting young adults: Initially, the program relied on traditional marketing techniques, such as yard signs and flyers posted in community centers, churches, and other public spaces, along with a significant number of enrollments resulting from word-of-mouth referrals. As SummerWorks matured and partnered more closely with the school district, much of the recruiting was transferred directly to the schools. For instance, schools now hold large assemblies to encourage students to enroll on-site; similarly, teachers may use class time to discuss summer plans and help students sign up for the program through the online portal.
- Delivering career preparedness training through partners: To further build out its programming, SummerWorks contracted with YouthBuild Louisville, a national nonprofit specializing in job training for young adults with low incomes. YouthBuild, which replaced another partner in 2016, provides required soft-skill training (such as interviewing techniques and communicating with coworkers) to program participants in the months leading up to the summer. Training is delivered at JCPS high schools. Furthermore, YouthBuild advises SummerWorks on recruiting and marketing efforts, and provides coaches to conducts site visits throughout the summer.
How was the approach funded?
- Launching SummerWorks: Mayor Fischer allocated $100,000 in his first city budget to fund operations and sponsored positions for SummerWorks. Shortly thereafter, KentuckianaWorks secured a $200,000 gift from a founder of Humana, along with $100,000 from Humana itself, and $100,000 from other local businesses. That funding allowed SummerWorks to connect roughly 200 young adults to summer jobs in its first year, including subsidizing the cost of wages.
- Scaling the program: Recognizing the program's early successes and seeking to increase the program's capacity to directly place students in jobs, the Louisville Metro Council increased its annual appropriation to $500,000 per year starting in 2013. SummerWorks was also selected for JP Morgan Chase’s “New Skills at Work” program in 2014, which has provided $100,000 each year since then. KentuckianaWorks, meanwhile, continues to actively fundraise for the program, raising an additional $500,000 annually through grants and gifts from local businesses and foundations.
- Contracting with YouthBuild: In 2016, SummerWorks signed a 5-year contract with local non-profit YouthBuild Louisville to provide enrolled students with dedicated job coaches and job skills training, along with recruiting and marketing support. KentuckianaWorks pays YouthBuild Louisville roughly $400,000 annually for its services.
- Boosting the budget for COVID expansion: With many employers cancelling plans for SummerWorks hiring, Mayor Fischer and KentuckianaWorks raised an additional $1.4 million for the 2020 program from the James Graham Brown Foundation, the Gheens Foundation, and the One Louisville: COVID-19 Response Fund. The funding allowed SummerWorks to place 1,079 students directly in jobs and “work-and-learn” opportunities. This doubled the number of sponsored job placements, largely making up for the employers that could not hire youth during the pandemic.
How was the approach measured and refined?
- Evaluating SummerWorks’ impact: Since its launch, SummerWorks leaders and Mayor Fischer have sought to demonstrate the program’s impact, especially to Louisville families and the business community. This is highlighted by a 2019 impact evaluation conducted by the state-run Kentucky Center for Statistics. SummerWorks also publishes annual program reports, including data on the number of students placed, what neighborhoods they live in, and how much they earn from summer employment.
- Continuing to refine the program — for students and employers: As part of its ongoing partnership with SummerWorks, YouthBuild administers surveys to students and employers. KentuckianaWorks’ market intelligence team then analyzes the data and shares it with the organization's employment outreach and student recruitment teams to inform their strategies and priorities. For instance, if a high share of employers indicate that students struggle with asking for help on a new task, YouthBuild may add a focused communications skills section into the next year’s pre-application soft skills training.
- Adapting to a tight labor market: When SummerWorks launched in 2011, it filled a crucial gap for many young adults: access to summer employment opportunities. In today’s especially tight labor market, SummerWorks is still focused on connecting as many young people as possible to job opportunities in which a private sector company hires, trains and pays them. However, SummerWorks now prioritizes sponsoring work-and-learn opportunities. These include Louisville Science Pathways, during which SummerWorks participants spend 7 weeks working in science labs alongside University of Louisville scientists, and TECC-Boss, wherein SummerWorks participants learn tech skills and work in teams to design an app that will help address a community problem.
- Scaling the program with JCPS and YouthBuild: In its early years, SummerWorks primarily served older young adults (18-21) who were not enrolled in school. When JCPS implemented the academy model in 2015, SummerWorks, recognizing an opportunity to expand its impact, redirected most of its resources to recruiting and placing high schools students.
- Launching an online portal for SummerWorks jobs: After surveying peer communities operating summer jobs programs, SummerWorks leaders identified that strong programs such as in Indianapolis, Boston, and Washington, D.C. relied primarily on a customized digital platform to connect students with employers. KentuckianaWorks thus issued an RFP to create KentuckianaEarns, which functions as both a jobs listing site and has integrated soft-skills training and program registration. In the summer of 2020, the online portal listed 3,000 summer jobs for students.
Results for America would like to thank the following individuals for their help in completing this case study: Chris Locke, Sarah Ehresman, Regina Phillips, and Michael Gritton of KentuckianaWorks; Kristin Wingfeld of Jefferson County Public Schools; and Lynn Rippy of YouthBuild Louisville.
This case study was written by Gavriel Remz and Ross Tilchin.