Strategy overview

  • Short-term paid employment: Summer youth employment and internship programs (SYEPs) connect youth and young adults (typically between the ages of 14 and 24) to paid jobs. Many programs make available a wide array of job opportunities, allowing students to apply to jobs of their choice, while others match youth to jobs directly. These employment experiences generally occur during the summer, but can also occur at other intervals during the school year. Students are generally paid hourly, though rates often vary by employer. In many programs, private sector employer partners that hire youth pay wages directly. In some cases, the program may subsidize wholly or in part the wages for sponsored jobs with community based organizations or nonprofits.

  • Exposure to professional environments: A primary focus of summer youth employment is to provide participants with exposure to professional settings and opportunities for skill development, including soft skills. Some programs combine formal work experience and summer learning, integrating time spent in the classroom and real-world opportunities to apply those lessons. Jobs typically span the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Some programs curate opportunities to foster exposure to particular occupations–such as careers in STEM.

  • Coaching and mentorship: Robust programs generally include formal supervision and frequent opportunities for feedback. Centrally administered programs (such as ones run by a school district, city government, large nonprofit, 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.

A systematic review and multiple randomized control trials indicate that summer youth employment has strong short-term effects on wages, employment, and criminal justice involvement, and in some cases,  academic achievement; 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 boost earnings and employment among youth, especially among those who may otherwise have difficulty finding employment. Summer youth employment programs 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 with two programs showing improvement in attendance during the school year and one program showing improvement in high-school graduation rates.

  • 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.

Before making investments in summer youth employment programs, city and county leaders should ensure this strategy addresses local needs.

The Urban Institute and Mathematica have developed indicator frameworks to help local leaders assess conditions related to upward mobility, identify barriers, and guide investments to address these challenges. These indicator frameworks can serve as a starting point for self-assessment, not as a comprehensive evaluation, and should be complemented by other forms of local knowledge.

The Urban Institute's Upward Mobility Framework identifies a set of key local conditions that shape communities’ ability to advance upward mobility and racial equity. Local leaders can use the Upward Mobility Framework to better understand the factors that improve upward mobility and prioritize areas of focus. Data reports for cities and counties can be created here.

Several indicators in the Upward Mobility Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality SYEP programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Social capital: Number of membership associations per 10,000 people and the ratio of residents’ Facebook friends with higher socioeconomic status to their Facebook friends with lower socioeconomic status. These data are available from the Census Bureau’s County Business Patterns and Opportunity Insights’ Social Capital Atlas, respectively.

Mathematica's Education-to-Workforce (E-W) Indicator Framework helps local leaders identify the data that matter most in helping students and young adults succeed. Local leaders can use the E-W framework to better understand education and workforce conditions in their communities and to identify strategies that can improve outcomes in these areas.

Several indicators in the E-W Framework may be improved with investments in high-quality SYEP programs. To measure these indicators and determine if investments in this strategy could help, examine the following:

  • Access to in-demand CTE pathways: Number and percentage of CTE program offerings considered “in demand”.
  • Communication skills and Higher-order thinking skills: Percentage of students demonstrating proficiency on assessments such as the College and Career Readiness Assessment (CCRA+), an assessment for grades 6–12 that measures critical thinking, problem solving, and written communications.
  • Digital skills:
  • Expenditures on workforce development programming: The amount of funding dedicated to workforce development programs as a percentage of total educational funding in a state.
  • Successful career transition after high school: Percentage of high school graduates enlisted in the military, enrolled in an apprenticeship program, enrolled in noncredit career and technical education (CTE) courses, or employed and earning at least the median annual full-time earnings for high school graduates ($35,000 per year) before October 31 following graduation.

  • Universal eligibility and near regular hours: High quality programs tend to allow any youth within a specific age range, often 16-24, to apply, with eligibility not tied to school enrollment. Most programs last six to seven weeks and offer youth 20-25 hours of paid work per week.

  • Wage and paycheck-earning: Experts emphasize the importance of youth earning an hourly wage and receiving a paycheck over other payment methods, like stipends. Receiving a paycheck provides youth experience being accountable for their hours and attendance, and more closely mirrors the adult experience of employment. Experts observe that this supports building self-confidence, a sense of personal achievement, and independence. It is also critical that youth feel their supervisor cares that they show up to work.

  • Market-appropriate wages: Experts encourage setting an hourly wage for all jobs in the program that is competitive with other employment opportunities available to youth. If they are able to earn more per hour working through another opportunity, such as retail, they may forgo the program. Competitive wages, in addition to the training and career growth opportunities offered by SYEPs, can help jobs offered via SYEPs compete with other opportunities.

  • Standards for skill-building, mentorship, and on-the-job supervision: High quality programs incorporate requirements for participating employers related to on-the-job supervision and make available opportunities for training and mentorship. They may define standards for skill-development curricula, which may include financial literacy, workforce readiness, “know your rights” training, and other soft skills. SYEP administrators frequently design curricula that employers may utilize or otherwise establish a standard that employers must meet when implementing their own curriculum. Similarly, quality controls should be implemented around supervision and mentoring. Some programs require supervisors to participate in training or may institute site visits to ensure experience quality.

  • Streamlined application options: Most high-quality SYEPs aggregate job opportunities into a centralized job portal, where students can browse opportunities, engage directly with employers, and apply to specific roles. Some programs utilize a single, centralized portal, while others rely on an ecosystem of several portals administered by a small number of intermediary organizations.

  • High-quality jobs and opportunities for progression: While some attributes of job quality may be less important to youth than to working adults, the quality of jobs offered to youth is crucial. At a minimum, youth should feel safe, respected, and that their job has meaning. It is particularly important to be aware of maintaining job quality standards as the program grows in scale. When curating the roles available, it is important to offer a variety, or “ladder” jobs, so that may allow youth to take on increasing responsibility and growth in successive summers.

  • Letters of recommendation: Research has found that making letters of recommendation available to high-performing youth after the conclusion of the summer led to improved employment outcomes for those youth over the subsequent two years. Letters should be somewhat personalized by indicating strengths of the individual. Programs may foster this by providing templates or language suggestions to supervisors.

  • Instill equity into slot allocation: When program demand exceeds capacity, experts advise that random allocation of slots will yield more equitable program participation than first-come-first-served, which tends to benefit youth who are already more connected and aware. Some programs do select target groups to whom priority is given for a portion of slots, however experts caution that it is crucial to leave a majority of slots open to true random allocation so that youth may still benefit from diverse peer groups.

  • Match demographics of youth hired for a role to that of the applicant pool: Both youth and employers want choice in the hiring process, however, experts observed that without intentional checks, employer partners tend to replicate biases seen in the broader labor market, making white and youth enrolled in highly-resourced schools more likely to be selected for roles. Some programs mitigate this by requiring that employers ensure that the demographics of the youth they hire for a role match the demographics of the pool of students who applied for a specific role. Program administration may then send each employer an equity report that provides data on who they attract as applicants and hiring decisions, and opens a conversation about any equity issues observed. In some cases, programs may decide to allow the employer to select for a portion of roles, while having program administration select or use random assignment for the remaining slots.

  • Target recruitment in priority neighborhoods: Make intentional efforts to conduct outreach and recruitment efforts in neighborhoods where priority youth live to encourage participation and increase awareness among communities with lower utilization rates. Experts note that nudging target youth to apply has been effective for some programs.

  • Consider job locations: Fewer job opportunities may be available in low-income or marginalized communities. It is important to foster jobs within the communities where youth live as much as possible, but also be mindful of transportation barriers for youth who have to travel outside of their communities for work. Consider subsidizing transit passes or providing them for free.

  • Be aware of unintended consequences: Research suggests that high quality employment opportunities outside of the summer months may contribute to downstream effects such as youth opting to enter the labor market at an earlier age and taking longer – or being less likely – to graduate. Consider providing pathways into school-year employment opportunities that are compatible with school attendance, or otherwise incentivizing youth to remain connected to school in conjunction with the SYEP.

  • City and district leadership: Mayor’s offices, superintendents, and other city leaders can play a crucial role in emphasizing the importance of providing youth with employment opportunities in the summer, as well as spreading awareness about the program and application deadlines with youth participants, their families, and employer partners.

  • Chambers of commerce or private industry councils: Groups that convene and represent the interests of private businesses can serve as partners in recruiting employers to join the program and hire youth. In some locations, they also serve as intermediaries that run parts of the SYEP itself.

  • Private employers or businesses: Aside from participating as employer partners themselves, private employers can act as advocates for the program, encouraging other businesses to join. Large, "anchor" employers can act as champions to the rest of the business community, helping increase participation. In some cases, private employers also act as a fiscal partner, providing funding for wages of youth hired by community-based organizations or nonprofits.

  • School leadership: Principals, superintendents, and other school staff may be critical partners in spreading awareness, recruiting youth, and aligning the learning opportunities of SYEPs with school curricula—particularly when a particular school is named a priority group for an SYEP or when opportunities extend into the school year.

  • Community-based organizations, universities, and colleges: These organizations provide high-quality, civically-oriented job opportunities. In some cases, they also can serve as a central program administrator or designer of training curricula provided to youth. Additionally, academic researchers frequently partner with programs to evaluate impact or advise on program design.

  • Foundations: Philanthropic funders can play a crucial role in filling gaps in public funding, allowing the program to serve more youth.

  • Build strategic partnerships: Engage deeply with a range of key stakeholders on both the supply and demand sides of the labor market, including the local workforce board, chamber of commerce, major employers, high school counselors, and more. Employers may be incentivized to engage when given the opportunity to inform skill development opportunities in alignment with their talent needs. Local workforce boards or chambers of commerce may be interested to utilize the program as a mechanism to fill holes and plan for long-term needs in the local labor market.

  • Maximize diversity of opportunity: Recruit employers from across the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to increase the likelihood of a strong match between participants and available opportunities. During this process, ensure that employers are appropriately vetted, including evaluating their capacity to provide on-job supervision and mentorship, learning opportunities, and market-appropriate wages.

  • Invest in ongoing training: Before students are placed into summer jobs, provide extensive pre-job training and professional development programming, potentially delivered at schools. This can include soft-skills training (in areas like communication, collaboration, and interviewing), along with hard-skills training (writing a resume, completing online applications, and filing timesheets).

  • Collect and evaluate data to refine the program: Solicit feedback via surveys and interviews from both employers and participants. Doing so can help programs incorporate youth voice into program design, identify high-quality employers, refine pre-job training, and demonstrate the impact of the experience to prospective participants and employers. Some programs utilize text messaging to engage with youth, ask job preference questions on the application form, or include questions seeking employer preferences or desired skills on the RFP. Collecting administrative data from employment, school and legal system records can also help understand program impact.

  • Pair smaller and larger organizations to ease administrative burden: Smaller, community-based organizations may struggle to adhere to certain program requirements—like adding youth to payroll or providing adequate training. Allowing larger organizations to support ones that are capacity-constrained ensures that small organizations which may provide valuable, civic-oriented experiences are able to participate.

  • Wages earned or hours worked per week: Payroll data can serve as a critical look into program participation on a weekly or bi-weekly basis. Disaggregating by age, race or ethnicity, or location can help identify employers that may be experiencing issues or those that are excelling. This data may be available to city staff via HR if wages are paid centrally by the city, or the program may require employer partners to report on it.

  • Skill acquisition, career development and exposure: Many programs incorporate assessments around increased understanding of career paths or skill development into surveys or feedback mechanisms with youth. This may include hard or soft skills that are developed on the job or via structured training.

  • Employer experience: Data around employer satisfaction and needs may help to tailor future training or other aspects of program design. This may be solicited via employer surveys before and after the program or open channels of feedback throughout the program.

Evidence-based examples

Largest youth employment program in the country, connecting NYC youth to paid work experience and career development each summer
High school graduation High-quality employment
Umbrella organization unifying summer skill-building programs across Chicago
High school graduation High-quality employment
Employment program that engages approximately 10,000 youths per summer in a six-to-seven week program
High school graduation
Provides job training in construction and other high-demand employment sectors
High school graduation High-quality employment

Results for America would like to thank the following contributors who lent their expertise to the creation of this resource:

  • Julia Breitman: Julia Breitman is the Assistant Commissioner for Workforce Development at the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development (DYCD). She oversees a portfolio of youth and adult workforce programs that serve over 120,000 New Yorkers annually and include the nation’s largest youth employment initiative, the Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP). At DYCD, Julia has spearheaded numerous initiatives which have become standard bearers for workforce programming, including Ladders for Leaders, Work, Learn & Grow, Advance & Earn, SYEP Pride; and a financial empowerment initiative which led to a 600% increase in youth banking. Julia also oversees the Precision Employment Initiative that is a part of Mayor Adams’ Blueprint to End Gun Violence; the WIOA funded Train & Earn and Learn & Earn programs, and Unity Works, the first program of its kind for LGBTQ+ young people.
  • Dr. Judd Kessler: Judd Kessler is the Howard Marks Professor in the Business Economics and Public Policy Department at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania. He received his Ph.D. in Business Economics from Harvard University in 2011. He has been researching SYEPs for the past 12 years.
  • Chris Locke: Christopher Locke is a Senior Program Director at KentuckianaWorks with experience that spans over two decades in Public Administration, Workforce Development, Employment Services, and NonProfit Management. For the last 6 years Christopher has overseen the SummerWorks program also known as Louisville’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) for youth and young adults 16-21. He is a proud graduate of the University of Louisville, a military veteran and has served in various advisory roles, on various boards, and solution focused committees. 
  • Dr. Alicia Sasser Modestino: Dr. Modestino is an Associate Professor at Northeastern University, where she also serves as the Research Director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. Dr. Modestino’s current research focuses on labor and health economics including youth development, skills mismatch, childcare, and the opioid crisis. She led an embedded randomized controlled trial to evaluate the impact of early work experience provided by the Boston Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) on the economic, academic, and criminal justice outcomes of low-income inner-city youth.