As Summer Youth Employment Program grows, so does the debate over how to retool it

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New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito visits students for first day of the Summer Youth Employment Program in 2014. (William Alatriste)

As New York City pumps more money into its popular summer youth jobs program, city officials and nonprofits are discussing ways to improve it, including better addressing the needs of different age groups, imposing an age limit of 21 and raising reimbursement rates.

Funding for the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program increased to $126.4 million for fiscal year 2018, which covers summer 2017, up from $51 million in 2015. Additionally, much of the funding was baselined earlier in the budget process, allowing nonprofits to plan ahead with more certainty.

Now, the city Department of Youth and Community Development is preparing to issue its first requests for proposals for the Summer Youth Employment Program in six years. These RFPs will be informed by a task force set up to study the program and will reflect changes previewed in a recently released agency concept paper.

The six-week program connects young people with summer jobs so they can earn a stipend while gaining skills, training and work experience. It is aimed at reducing youth unemployment, particularly among minority communities disproportionately affected by a lack of jobs.

The review process began when city officials convened a Youth Employment Task Force last fall to gather input from nonprofit providers, foundation leaders and others to assess the efficacy of the program. The task force found that the summer employment program particularly helped participants without professional networks, boosted academic outcomes and lowered the chances a participant would go to prison.

The task force also recommended that programs for younger participants be differentiated from those for older participants and that the age of participants should be limited to 21 years old, except for “vulnerable youth.” Other city programs such as Workforce1 could accommodate the 3,000 participants that were older than 21.

“As we think about (the Summer Youth Employment Program) and the direction that we’re moving in, we want to ensure that we’re creating a program that young people could benefit from in the long term,” Andre White, associate commissioner of youth workforce development at DYCD, said at a New York City Council hearing earlier this month. “We want to ensure that they’re developing and acquiring skills that they could utilize when they leave the program.”

Based on the task force report and a handful of pilot programs conducted over the summer, the DYCD released its concept paper in September to give providers an idea of what may be required of them in the upcoming RFPs and to ask for their feedback.

The concept paper proposed releasing three different RFPs later this fall to address different populations of youth. One would target community-based programs for 14- and 15-year-olds, older youths aged 16-21 and DYCD’s own Ladders for Leaders programs, which grew by 21 percent over last year and offered internships to 1,855 youths. A second RFP for special initiatives would include serving vulnerable youth, such as homeless youths or those aging out of the foster care system. The third RFP for school-based programs would connect academic programs in specific schools to the Summer Youth Employment Program.

Some service providers – nonprofits who match young people between the ages of 14 and 24 with jobs at summer worksites across New York City – responded to the proposed RFPs with concerns about the contract’s reimbursement rate and program design.

The Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York, which participated in the task force, recommended that the de Blasio administration plan to increase the number of summer employment slots to 100,000, and continue to give providers early notice of how many slots are funded so they can place youths. It also recommended DYCD retool and shorten an eight-hour unpaid orientation to ensure kids remain engaged and that it rethink segmenting programming for vulnerable youth to avoid stigmatizing them.

Grant Cowles, the organization’s senior policy and advocacy associate for youth justice, urged the agency to increase the price per participant rate that is used to cover administrative costs for the program, particularly since DYCD’s concept paper indicated nonprofits should hire more specialized staff.

That rate, which is paid directly to summer jobs providers, ranges from $325 per participant slot, to $600 for organizations working with vulnerable youth, to $1,000 for participants in the Ladders for Leaders program, which offers internships to high-performing high school and college-age students. That program requires more intense work by providers on behalf of the interns, such as 30 hours of training, resume reviews and job placements.

DYCD directly pays participants at least minimum wage. “The $325 (price per participant rate) has been the rate since 2004, and new contracts are an opportune time to address this low rate,” Cowles said.

Raihan Mondal, a program supervisor at the Chinese-American Planning Council, agreed and said the concept paper wasn’t clear on what the rate increase would be, but recommended it should be doubled. “(The $325 rate) is definitely not going to work, especially if you want to have qualified individuals who are going to be working with these young people,” he said.

“You want to make sure that they could actually work with them and provide the services that we’re trying to give to them to make sure that the program is successful,” Mondal added.

Department of Youth and Community Development Commissioner Bill Chong told the City Council the rate “may change,” but said he needed more clarity about the budget from the mayor’s office before DYCD could issue RFPs with new rates.

Since the previous RFP was issued in 2011, when there were only 23,000 summer employment positions, providers have been working under an open-ended contract, with program designs and price per participant rates left largely unchanged.

Providers also suggested making changes that would increase the program’s appeal and tighten its focus on particular segments of youth.

The Children’s Aid Society, which had 7,800 applications for just 2,678 slots this year, has run summer employment programs for seven years. Its Teen Workforce Development Director Sandino Sanchez said the school-based programs should be limited to youth up to 21 years old, and they should offer rates to providers closer to $2,000.

In her New York City Council testimony, Lucy Friedman, president of ExpandED Schools, echoed those concerns. She also recommended that programs give participants internship credits and allow school staff to play a role in managing the programs.

Chong said that more consistent funding and an increased budget has already helped firm up slots earlier in the season. In previous years, the final agency budget was approved just a couple of weeks before the start of the summer program, leaving administrators scrambling to hire staff and recruit participants.

“If you rush the process, it’s not going to benefit the young person, and it’s not going to benefit the employer,” Chong said.

With this year’s baseline funding in place early, DYCD had three months to place young people into jobs over the summer. Nonprofits helped connect 69,716 youths to jobs at community-based organizations, companies and government agencies. The number is a massive jump from the 60,113 youths served in summer 2016. Enrollment has nearly doubled since summer 2013, according to the agency’s 2016 annual summary.

While nonprofits have traditionally been the primary employers within the program, companies like CVS, Modell’s and Bank of America have significantly increased their involvement and now comprise about 45 percent of the more than 12,000 worksites.

At the hearing, City Councilman David Greenfield, who is leaving elected office at the end of this year to lead the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, questioned the focus on more career track programs within the summer jobs program, which could have the unanticipated effect of reducing programs for youth and young adults who aren’t as career oriented yet and simply want a job to make money, earn life experience and get off of the street.

“(Telling a kid that) you’re going to get to hang out with a bunch of folks and you’re going to wear a sweater vest and a tie … and you’re going to write concept papers and at the end of the summer you’re going to get to write a resume – I don’t know,” Greenfield said. “I would think a very high percentage of the kids are going to be like, ‘No thanks, I’m going to go skateboarding instead.’”

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