At the Youth Employment Policy Forum last Thursday, one researcher illustrated the employment problem facing young people in Massachusetts; the other presented a potential solution. It wasn’t quite “good cop, bad cop,” but it drove the issue home.

The Problem

The problem, in short, is that young people in Massachusetts are having a much harder time finding work than before. Mark Melnik, a researcher at University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute and lead author of a recent report on the state’s young adult labor force, illustrated this problem in a series of graphs before the roomful of economists, policymakers, and researchers gathered at the Federal Bank of Boston. Attendees who worked directly with youth in employment initiatives knew the problem intimately.

In 1998, nearly 65% of youth ages 16-24 in Massachusetts were employed. By 2005, that figure had dropped to 45%. Today, the figure still lingers below 50%.

graph of youth employment rates

Why? Based on their changing employment rates around 2000, Melnik said, “Young workers appear to be competing with older workers.” Additionally, some industries now offer fewer jobs for youth. For example, in 2000 the manufacturing industry accounted for 7.3% of youth jobs in Massachusetts. By 2014, that figure had shrunk to 3.8%.

With fewer jobs come fewer opportunities for young people to understand the labor market, gain valuable work experience, and begin their transition into a career. Minority youth disproportionately bear the brunt of this lost opportunity. There is a nearly 10 percentage point difference between the employment rates for whites versus black/Hispanic young people. Additionally the disconnection rate (percentage of youth who are neither in work nor school) for black and Hispanic youth is double that of whites.

A Solution?

Alicia Sasser Modestino, a researcher at Northeastern University’s School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs, took the podium next to share the findings from her initial report on Boston’s summer youth employment program.

woman at podium pointing
Alicia Sasser Modestino points to her findings on Boston’s summer youth employment program.

Through the summer youth employment program, young people apply to be placed in subsidized positions with community-based organizations or in the private sector. They also participate in a 20-hour work readiness curriculum on everything from workplace safety to soft skills to the job application process. Although some 10,000 young people gain employment through the program each year, demand still exceeds supply.

“There are far more youth [applying] than there is funding for jobs,” she said.

The rationale for the summer jobs program extends beyond providing an introduction to the workforce. The program, Modestino said, also seeks to reduce crime by getting idle young people off the streets and to give them a sense of agency, identity and competency.

Modestino is subjecting these hopes to meticulous study. In the first (recently completed) phase of her research, she administered surveys to summer youth employment program participants before and after the program, and compared their answers to that of a control group.

In her survey of over 600 participants:

  • 87% reported they had learned to be on time
  • 86% reported they had learned to organize their work
  • 50% reported they had learned to apply new computer skills

And compared to the control group, the summer job participants were:

  • 19% more likely to have prepared a cover letter
  • 15% more likely to have prepared a resume
  • 6.6% more likely to plan to go to college

In a promising call-and-response with Melnik’s research, she found that minority youth accounted for the greatest gains.

In the next phase of her research, Modestino will compare these short-term findings to longer-term administrative data on employment, wages, academic performance, and court involvement over the following year. Ultimately, she hopes to uncover which features of the summer youth employment program contribute to participant outcomes. The Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development (OWD), which collaborated with Modestino on the report, has signaled its intent to apply the lessons from her findings.

“[OWD administrators] said, ‘Tell us what works, we’ll do more of it. Tell us what doesn’t, we’ll do less of it.’ As a researcher, that’s one of the most exciting things that can be said to you,” she said.

The Youth Employment Forum was organized by the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, the Boston Private Industry Council, and the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development.

three people at table
Forum attendees discuss ways to help increase the youth employment rate.