Youth Unemployment Solutions: A Work in Progress

By Tatyana Hopkins

Mayor Muriel Bowser talked about expanding employment and training opportunities in her State of the District Address last week, and the D.C. Council Committee on Labor and Workforce Development on Tuesday discussed ways to improve employment outcomes for young people during a public hearing.

The committee took a critical look at overall D.C. government employment services and two pieces of proposed legislation aimed at youth employment through large-scale expansion of existing job training programs—the mayor-sponsored Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Expansion Act of 2017, and the Safe Way Home Act of 2017 sponsored by Ward 8 Council member and committee member Trayon White.

It heard testimony from policy analysts, advocates, community activists and employment service providers who recommended changes to the specific bills as well as general improvements needed in youth employment services provided by the D.C. government overall.

The consensus: Bigger is not always better.

“There are lots of innovations in youth employment,” said Kisha Bird, director of youth policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Bird said that regardless of method, the council should think critically about how programs will build capacity in the workforce when they end.

The experts agreed a more comprehensive system of targeted programs, rather than just program expansion, would have better outcomes in engaging youth in the job market. Though they approved of the overall aims of the bills, they called for planning that would establish a broad system of inter-related programs for youth in stages of the workforce.

The summer employment expansion act seeks to permanently expand the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) to include 22-24-year-old participants, raise the program’s minimum wage to $8.25 (up from $7.25), and remove the six-week limitation on the employment period for youth placed in supervisory positions.

“Both bills under consideration today reflect the commitment of the Bowser administration and the D.C. Council’s commitment to reducing youth unemployment and ensuring meaningful work experience for D.C. youth,” said Amy Dudas, a policy analyst with the D.C. Alliance for Youth Advocates (DCAYA). “While DCAYA supports the intent of both bills, we hope that the D.C. Department of Employment Services (DOES) and the D.C. Council will be receptive to [our] recommendations.”

Panelists suggested the program be part of a continuum of progressive and ongoing programming to help youth of all stages of ability and skill, as well integration of work skills such as communication, positive self-concept and higher order thinking into programs. The panel also suggested targeted programs with provisions engaging youth who have been historically disenfranchised from the job market, including those with a criminal history, who have dropped out of school or who are pregnant or parenting teens.

“In a 2015 SYEP report, DOES accounted for the connection of this 22- to 24-year-old cohort to supportive services and long-term engagement,” Dudas said.

The report showed that 844 22- to 24-year-olds participated in the program, and after completion 174 returned to school in August and 247 secured employment by December of that year.

“Unfortunately, DOES has not released a comparable report for 2016,” Dudas said.

SYEP expenditures for 2015 and 2016 were $19.3 million and $17.3 million, respectively. D.C. audit findings showed the need for tightening of internal controls for the program.

Experts agreed, suggesting the program adopt consistent reporting standards to evaluate outcomes to better determine what network of services will best suit D.C. youth. For example, examining whether removal of the 6-week time limit interferes with more targeted or needed programming taking place beyond the summer.

Dudas warned that over-investment in the expansion of SYEP could inhibit the creation of an integrated system of programs that address the full spectrum of needs for disconnected youth.

Similar remarks about needing a coordinated and cohesive framework to address youth employment outcomes were made by experts regarding the Safe Way Home Act.

The Safe Way Home Act aims to create grants to fund violence intervention programming in Police Services Areas (PSA) with elevated levels of violent crime, establish a community outreach team to provide additional outreach work to assure safe passage to and from schools and expand the city’s on-the-job training program for adults to serve 1,000 young adults from those areas.

Though experts say though they support the bill aims to reduce crime, they suggest the committee assess how the plans relate to a broader system of services that could be targeted to address various aspects violence and youth unemployment.

Eduardo Ferrer, policy director at the D.C. Lawyers for Youth, said over the past few decades the juvenile-justice system has heavily relied on reactionary methods of reducing violence and crime such as policing and prosecution, and the bill could help the city shift to the emerging public-health approach, which uses prevention and mitigation.

“In the District of Columbia, we are still at the starting line when it comes to fundamentally restructuring our approach on crime by replacing it with a public health strategy,” Ferrer said.
He said the issue needs “a comprehensive plan, not a piecemeal approach.”

Committee members said they would consider the recommendations.

“It is incredibly important for the District as a whole that our youth, particularly those not in school or working, have access to quality programming to help them succeed in the job market,” said at-large Council member and committee chair Elissa Silverman. “This not only benefits these individuals, but our city by boosting our economy and helps our employers meet their business demands. Youth programming has also shown to have other important effects such as reduction in crime.”

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