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At-Large Councilmember Vincent Orange has set a new employment goal for the recently rebranded Mayor Marion S. Barry Summer Youth Employment Program: to assist at least 35 percent of 22- to 24-year-old participants in finding a full-time job.

At a roundtable of the D.C. Council’s Committee on Business, Consumer, and Regulatory Affairs, Orange revealed targeted efforts to revamp the program, which received a $5.3 million boost in its budget this year after Mayor Muriel Bowser re-appropriated the funds in February. It’s a substantial sum for a program that has historically cost about $12 million a year to operate.

“There is a prolonged transition that makes it difficult for the working-class, non-college-bound young person age 21 to be cut off [from benefits],” Orange said.

This is the first year 22-, 23-, and 24-year-olds are eligible to participate in SYEP. Of the about 15,000 youths enrolled in the program this summer, which begins June 29, 974 are between the ages of 22 and 24. Sixty percent of those who applied in that age bracket are from Wards 7 and 8.

It’s also the first time in six years participants will see an increase in wages, said Gerren Price, deputy director of the Department of Employment Services’ Office of Youth Programs. Workers 14 and 15 years old will make $5.25 per hour, while 16- to 21-year-olds will make $8.25 per hour, up from $7.25 in past years. Those who are 22 to 24 years old will make $9.25 per hour.

Deborah Carroll, director of the DES, said the department has received “pretty good commitments” from 120 employers interested in hiring interns. Carroll also said she’s “pretty confident” the department will meet Orange’s goal in assisting 35 percent of those 22- to 24-year-old workers in finding a full-time job.

This year, DES is also working with other offices, like the Department of Health Services, to provide childcare services for participants who might be in need of them. It also aims to diversify employment opportunities by adding apprenticeships in IT, healthcare, and film.

The SYEP has faced staggering attrition challenges in the last five years. On average, between 12,000 and 15,000 youths participate in the program each year; about 18 percent don’t complete the program, either because they lose interest in their jobs, can’t afford the transportation costs, or are hired to a better position elsewhere.

“This expansion is right on time,” Carroll said.

Price said he hopes the $110 pre-loaded WMATA SmarTrip card each participant will receive before the program begins will keep them interested in completing the program.

“I believe SYEP is an icon of this city,” At-Large Councilmember Elissa Silverman said. “It gives young people a sense of dignity, purpose, and is also a diversion from less character-building activities. It’s a summer job for some, but for others it’s a path out of poverty.”

One witness, Ty Hobson-Powell, a 20-year-old Ph. D candidate and resident of Ward 4, recounted the death of his friend, a fellow 20-year-old man who was fatally shot on March 12 this year at 8th and Jefferson streets.

“Why did [the gunman] have that idle time?” Hobson-Powell said. “These people are running a race with no finish line.”

During the questioning period after Hobson-Powell’s testimony, Orange challenged the thinking of the Council.

“My colleagues don’t want me to go here, but [I’m thinking], if I don’t give you a job, are you going to hit me upside the head?” Orange said of job-seeking youths, citing the recent spike in violent crime as a reason to continue expanding job opportunities. “I’m going to meet up with you in some type of way… It’s on the government for not reaching out and investing in young people.”

Ward 8 Councilmember LaRuby May challenged the other members of the Council to register as employers for the program, as she has done. Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau announced at the hearing she would also have SYEP participants working in her office this summer.

Photo by Darrow Montgomery