For generations of American youth, the summer job has been an iconic marker of growing up, taking on responsibility, and earning some degree of financial independence. But in recent decades, this pivotal life experience has become scarcer and scarcer. In 1998 in Massachusetts, for example, 65% of young people ages 16-24 were employed. By 2005, that figure had plummeted to 45%. Today, the youth employment rate still hovers below 50%.

Against this backdrop, Boston’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) has taken on ever greater significance. Each summer, the program arranges employment opportunities for over 10,000 Boston youth, ages 14-22, with over 900 local employers. Participants typically work 20-25 hours per week for 6-7 weeks, July through August, and engage with a work readiness curriculum. The rewards extend far beyond adult nostalgia for first jobs. Recent research shows that Boston’s summer jobs program may have a meaningful impact on workforce development, economic equality, and even public safety in the City of Boston.

A teen intern at software company Toast.

Boston’s Summer Youth Employment Program

Most major U.S. cities have some kind of summer jobs program for youth. But Boston’s is unique for its sprawling scope and decentralized structure. Many stakeholders – including nonprofits, companies, and city agencies – organize different pieces of the overall summer jobs program. The result is a diverse mix of jobs, both subsidized and unsubsidized, tailored to a variety of youth populations.

Some of the many faces of Boston’s SYEP:

  • The SuccessLink lottery, operated by the City of Boston, randomly selects applicants for jobs with community-based organizations. An algorithm ideally matches teens to positions near their homes that align with their interests.
  • Career specialists from the Boston Private Industry Council (PIC) meet with BPS high school students to prepare them to apply and interview for positions with private employers.
  • John Hancock’s MLK Scholars program is a privately sponsored initiative that places Boston teens with local nonprofits. The program includes personal development workshops and leadership forums.
  • A variety of youth development organizations in the city – such as Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) and YOU Boston – arrange job placements for the specific populations they serve.
Ronah in the Brighton Allston Congregational Church kitchen.

As a result of this citywide team effort, thousands of Boston’s young people get to prove themselves in roles as camp counselors, landscapers, interns, and the like. Ronah, a sophomore at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School, got to try out a range of tasks in her summer job. As part of a YOU Boston service team working at Brighton Allston Congregational Church, she helped clean the building, prepare meals for the homeless, and even set up the church thrift shop. A cosmetology student who hopes to open her own salon someday, Ronah said she appreciated the chance to interact with customers and see how a store is run. The experience confirmed why she’d signed up for the job in the first place.

“I didn’t want to just waste my time, sleeping in and doing nothing,” she said. “I wanted to make my own money, do something.”

The Research

These summer jobs do something, as well, for participants like Ronah and the city as a whole. Parsing that something – figuring out the precise impacts across different youth populations – is the challenge tackled by Alicia Sasser Modestino, a researcher at Northeastern University’s Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. In collaboration with the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development (OWD), which manages a portion of SYEP funding, Modestino has been analyzing short-term survey data from Boston’s SYEP participants and comparing it with long-term outcomes captured in administrative records.

The survey results, of themselves, suggest that summer jobs make an immediate positive impact. Over two-thirds of respondents reported they had learned to organize their work, be on time, and solve problems. A comparison of pre- and post-program surveys also showed a significant jump in those who reported they:

  • Had a resume (+29 percentage points)
  • Had a cover letter (+20 percentage points)

Many of the greatest gains in job readiness, as well as heightened aspirations to attend 4-year college, were shown among youth of color.

Teens tend flower beds at the Gardens at Elm Bank.

An even more dramatic transformation was found in participants’ social and emotional well-being. Over three-quarters of respondents reported they had learned to manage their emotions, ask for help when needed, and resolve conflict. Relative to the control group, SYEP participants were far more likely to report they:

  • Contributed value to their social groups (+15 percentage points)
  • Felt connected with neighbors (+22 percentage points)
  • Felt safe walking in their neighborhood (+20 percentage points)

These social-emotional changes took on new light when Modestino examined participants’ court records 17 months after their participation in SYEP.  She found that arraignments for:

  • Violent crime dropped by 35%
  • Property crime dropped by 57%

Significant reductions in criminal activity were found for youth who reported improved social-emotional skills immediately after their participation in SYEP.

In the next phase of her research, Modestino will explore how particular features of the SYEP contribute to these outcomes. “[OWD] said, ‘Tell us what works, we’ll do more of it. Tell us what doesn’t, we’ll do less of it,’” Modestino told a youth employment forum in February. “As a researcher, that’s one of the most exciting things that can be said to you.”