Research on Summer Programs Sheds Light on Employment and Well-Being for Youth
Two new working papers from the National Bureau of Economic Research offer support for distinct approaches to increasing equity in employment for adolescents and young adults. Funded by the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab’s Social Policy Research Initiative and supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the studies provide valuable insights that policymakers and funders can use to develop effective youth workforce strategies.
The papers are based on randomized controlled studies about summer youth employment programs — research that’s aligned with Casey’s broader commitment to developing the job skills of young people and expanding their opportunities in the workforce.
One Summer Chicago Plus and WorkReady
“When Scale and Replication Work: Learning from Summer Youth Employment Experiments” reports the results from trials that looked at how nearly 10,000 youth participants in two summer youth employment programs — One Summer Chicago Plus (OCS+) and Philadelphia Youth Network’s WorkReady — fared in criminal justice involvement, well-being, school engagement and other factors. One of the things researchers wanted to assess: how summer youth employment programs change as they grow and examine the effects of program adaptation. Their rationale? Outcomes data can go beyond showing whether programs work to identifying which stand the best chance of benefitting more people or succeeding in different places and with different groups of participants.
This versatility, the thinking goes, might be just as important as a model’s original effectiveness for policymakers trying to determine where to invest public dollars, as it presents a more complete picture of the difference a program can ultimately make.
OCS+ is a discreet program area embedded in One Summer Chicago, the city’s Department of Family and Support Services summer youth employment program for young people ages 16 to 21. OSC+ focuses on serving students who attend high schools in neighborhoods with high levels of violence. In 2015, the program nearly tripled in size — from its initial cohort of 700 youth in 2012 — to place 2,000 participants through 19 agency providers. Besides this growth, the program also was adapted to include a longer training period and changes to the supplemental curriculum participants received.
WorkReady, a citywide summer jobs program for youth ages 14–21, has been operating in Philadelphia for more than 15 years. In 2017 and 2018, the program was implemented with several variations in design and delivery to test whether these factors would affect how participants fared. For example, randomized lotteries were used to assign study participants to different providers, all of which offered professional development opportunities and one of three program models but varied in emphasis and structure.
The studies’ findings suggest that summer youth employment programs are particularly well-positioned to expand and adapt to different contexts. Researchers found that the programs reduced criminal justice involvement and, based on findings from the evaluation of WorkReady, may decrease the need for child protective services or behavioral health treatment. These findings should have important implications for policymakers who must find ways to address persistent social inequities with limited resources. Furthermore, when programs are expanded and adapted, they are more likely to reach the young people who need them most.
Recommendation Letters and Youth Employment
In the second study, “The Effects of Letters of Recommendation in the Youth Labor Market,” researchers used a New York City summer employment program for youth ages 14 to 24 — with approximately 83,000 youth who participated in 2016 or 2017 — to chart the relationship between recommendation letters and how program participants fared when they sought permanent jobs.
Employers were given access to software that quickly and easily generated recommendation letters for summer youth employment program participants who had worked under their supervision. Personalized letters were produced for 9,000 randomly selected youth over two years, and researchers tracked their job-search progress, finding a significant increase in employment over the year following receipt of a letter when compared with a control group that did not have letters generated for them — along with increased earnings over the two-year follow-up period.
Youth who received letters were more likely to include them with their job applications but otherwise showed no behavioral differences from the control group. For example, search efforts, motivation and confidence were similar for both sets — indicating that the higher success rate of applicants with letters stemmed from the response on the employer side. One likely factor is that the letters work to efficiently signal the credibility of youth workers to potential employers.
Youth of color who received a recommendation letter had a greater likelihood of being employed than those who did not, suggesting the program and others like it might be useful in leveling the playing field and equitably expanding employment opportunities.
“This research helps clarify how programs can be expanded to serve more young people and help put them on the path to employment, and the positive effects for other areas of their lives,” says Casey senior associate Allison Holmes, who supervised the Foundation’s investment in the studies. “The findings are particularly promising for youth of color, who often experience racial discrimination in hiring and the workplace.”