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On Tuesday, the D.C. Council’s 13 members unanimously voted to extend the Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment program, a work-readiness initiative, for another two years—but not without concerns.
Mayor Muriel Bowser has heralded the program as a pathway to the middle class for struggling youth, including those between 22 and 24 years old, who were eligible to participate in it for the first time last summer. The mayor had “reprogrammed” roughly $5 million in February to cover these older residents, a wage increase, and transportation. This age group worked a maximum 30 hours per week at $9.25 an hour.
When permanently expanding the program to cover 1,500 youth ages 22 to 24 came up for a vote earlier this week (those participants would be paid the District’s minimum wage), D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson moved an amendment limiting the extension to a couple years and 1,000 youth that age.
“The goal for this program is not clear, and that is a problem,” Mendelson said from the dais, asking why 256 higher-education students composed last year’s total cohort of 844 participants, according to data the Council had received from the District’s Department of Employment Services. “We are spending millions of local dollars [and] the fiscal impact statement for this bill is $13.4 million over four years… The bottom line for me: I desperately support job programs, but I want job programs that work.”
The chairman cited D.C.’s current “high-risk” status stamped on it by the U.S. Department of Labor—the only jurisdiction nationwide to be labelled as such—for employment and job training programs, meaning it could lose millions of dollars in federal funds.
2015 SYEP data obtained by City Paper shows that more than 60 percent of the nearly 250 participants ages 22 to 24 who gained employment following the six-week program were working part-time as of Dec. 31; only 30 percent were working full-time; and the remainder were employed at an unknown frequency due to a lack of information on federal unemployment-insurance status that is forthcoming. The data is based on self-reporting through a survey, exit interviews, and followups DOES did with employers.
It also provides a window into the kinds of employment that participation in SYEP helped produce. Of the part-time workers recorded, several became sales associates, clerks, cashiers, administrative assistants, security personnel, and—at least in two cases—managers. They worked for companies including Dunkin’ Donuts, Macy’s, Giant, Target, CVS, Buffalo Wild Wings, Holiday Inn, and the Washington Nationals. (A notable portion of the data—particularly in regards to employer names and position titles—is incomplete.)
Among SYEP participants who landed full-time jobs, there were laborers, IT trainers, LED light installers, childcare and legal assistants, servers, and others like those among the part-timers, spanning similar retail, hospitality, and entertainment firms. Both the full- and part-time cohorts include a minority of youth who ended up in the public sector: at a handful of schools, D.C. agencies, and offices of the federal government.
Last June, at a public roundtable on the SYEP program, At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange indicated that he wanted DOES to set a 35 percent goal for “full-time” employment: Thirty-five percent of participants ages 22 to 24 who didn’t plan to return to college would attain full-time jobs after the summer.
“It would be a shame if this government is not able to connect 35 percent of the 22-, 23-, 24-year-olds to permanent jobs,” he said.
On Tuesday, Orange accepted Mendelson’s limiting amendment “as friendly,” but stated for the record that he didn’t agree with the chairman’s “narrative” about the state of DOES and local employment programs. A spokesperson for Orange says the councilmember views the 35-percent benchmark as pertaining to “year-round employment”—inclusive of full- and part-time jobs—and that this standard derived from discussions between the executive and the legislature.
In a report published on Feb. 1, DOES says it exceeded that goal. (The report does not show how many of the near-250 SYEP alums who got jobs were previously employed.)
Molly Nunez, a spokesperson for the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Greater Economic Opportunity, says almost all the program’s participants had different needs, with some going back to school, some focused on getting a GED, and others desiring the flexibility of part-time jobs. Some who achieved part-time jobs after SYEP, she adds, were working “just short of” the 40 hours per week defined as full-time work by the federal government. In addition, almost three in four of the SYEP alums ages 22 to 24 resided in Wards 5, 7, and 8.
“The point of this program is to get people through the door, get them introduced to the working world and on track to a productive career,” says Nunez, when asked about the majority of part-time hires. “They’re still young, too. What they need looks very different from our traditional view of what a 9-to-5 job looks like.”
As part of SYEP, the District hired 15 “success coaches” to work with the older program participants on interview, resume, and other career skills. They were also responsible for informing the participants of job fairs and year-long programs as well as monitoring their proteges’ progress throughout the summer and into the winter.
Nunez says the District doesn’t have exact numbers on continuity—SYEP’ers who sustained the same jobs across seasons—but knows of employers that kept people on, like WDC Solar, an energy company based in Ward 8. The success coaches were a “positive part” of the program, she adds, and will likely become more of a focus in the future.
“We’re thrilled. We’re very excited about being able to realize this vision for another two years,” Nunez says. “Of course, we’re going to push to make this permanent—it’s not something we’re going to give up on, because we believe it’s really important.”
Still, Mendelson wasn’t the only person on the dais Tuesday who expressed skepticism about extending the program again to the older cohort. In a statement, At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman noted that only about three of 10 older SYEP participants gained employment directly after the program. She also said that while SYEP could, for example, reduce the risk of criminal-justice involvement among D.C.’s youth, it’s hard to discern such a correlation from the available data. Moving ahead, Silverman added, it’s vital that D.C. no longer be classified as “high-risk” by the Department of Labor and that SYEP alums actually connect with sustainable opportunities.
Said Silverman: “We need to be sure we are spending their time, and our taxpayer dollars, as effectively as possible, to lift these young people out of poverty not just for six weeks—or six months—but for a lifetime.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery