Youth summer jobs go virtual

The teenagers employed in Miami’s youth summer jobs program this year have a big job to do: They’re interviewing thousands of residents and business owners by phone about all the ways COVID-19 has impacted them.

The survey data these 16- to 19-year olds collect will feed into and inform the city’s long-term economic recovery efforts. The work comes at a moment when COVID-19 cases are surging in Miami and across Florida. Mayor Francis Suarez calls it “a constructive — and truly productive — way to engage our young people and assist all Miamians in the process.”

It’s also a big change from the way the Miami Summer Jobs Connect program usually works. Normally, the city places about 200 youth in positions out in the community, working with local nonprofits, businesses, and city agencies. This year, thanks to COVID-19, the work is all being done remotely.

A similar story is playing out in cities across the country as thousands of disadvantaged teenagers and young adults start new summer jobs this month.

Summer jobs programs have long been a popular way for mayors to keep young people productive while school is out, while offering career development and a total of as much as $2,000 in wages — a big lift for families with low incomes. Programs in a number of cities have been shown to have positive impacts in reducing crime and violence.

But this year’s programs look very different than in summers past. Budget pressures, a shaky job market, continuing COVID lockdown measures, and health considerations have forced city leaders to make massive changes to these programs — and be creative about how to put young people to work safely.

  • In Baltimore, most of the 4,500 teens who started summer jobs yesterday will be working remotely for their employers, and about a quarter of them will be focusing primarily on working with a job coach to boost their skills and career readiness.
  • In Boston, 8,000 young people are working along different tracks, including an “earn and learn” program where they can get paid to take college courses for credit; virtual internships with local employers; and special projects like conducting census outreach or developing a peer-to-peer marketing plan to build awareness about measures to stop the spread of COVID-19. There’s one in-person track for youth to work outdoors maintaining parks and recreational spaces.
  • In Chicago, many of the 20,000 youth jobs this summer will be focused on career-development opportunities such as learning about different hospital jobs and the paths required to get them, learning how to code, or even doing deep-dive research into the history and future of pandemics. “Agencies have been extremely creative about how to save our summer,” said Lisa Davis, who runs the Chicago operation. “They pivoted quickly to the online process and finding things for young people to do that are workforce-development related.”

The turn to remote work for summer youth employment programs comes with some complications and risks. Access to computers and high-speed internet is one of them, although cities are able to piggyback off a lot of the efforts public schools put into bridging those gaps in the spring. The bigger problem, given how challenging remote learning was for schools and students, may be Zoom fatigue.

“Everybody’s cognizant of the fact that youth are pretty burned out from Zoom classes and remote learning during the school year,” said Alicia Sasser Modestino, an associate professor at Northeastern University who is working with Boston on a multi-year evaluation of its summer jobs program. “The big push right now is to make sure that if we’re paying these wages and we’re engaging them virtually, that they’re actually engaged and not checking out.”

To assess if Boston’s move online works or not, Modestino is conducting before-and-after surveys with participants. She’ll be looking at what impact remote work has on their job-readiness skills, social-emotional skills, academic aspirations, and ideas about careers and work. She plans to turn her findings around quickly in the fall so that they can inform the design of other youth programming during the pandemic. If virutal work experiences prove valuable to students, she said, they could become part of how cities look to expand their summer jobs programs in the future.

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For many cities, it was a struggle to get this far. According to a National League of Cities survey, two thirds of cities have had to cut summer-specific funding for programs like youth jobs. Cities like Milwaukee, Wis., and Lexington, Ky., decided to cancel their programs this year, while many others are operating at reduced capacity.

New York City — which typically runs the nation’s largest summer jobs program for 75,000 youth — canceled it back in April only to bring back a modified version offering online career exploration and project-based learning for 35,000. And in a nod to demands to spend less on police and more on social services, Cincinnati shifted $1 million from its police budget to fund its summer youth employment program.

In Miami, the police department is actually a critical partner in this year’s summer jobs program, along with a nonprofit partner called the Overtown Youth Center. In previous years, the police have hosted interns through the program, and when police leaders heard that this year’s offering might be scaled back, they stepped in to help with developing the curriculum, training, and tech support in order to allow the program to continue to serve 200 young people, as in previous years.

While Miami’s program is relatively small, there’s a lot packed into it. The program is one of 23 to receive funding and technical assistance through the Cities for Financial Empowerment Fund, a national nonprofit best known for partnering with local governments to deliver professional financial counseling as a free public service. The support adds personal finance management to the mix of training participants receive, as well as help setting up a bank account to facilitate direct deposit of paychecks and encourage saving.

For their major project this summer, the COVID survey, participants also have been getting training in how to conduct telephone interviews and log data from them. Yesterday, the group made their first 2,000 phone calls, working in four-hour shifts.

Program Manger Gissella Sotelo said participants are adjusting well to working from home, in part because they receive close supervision and encouragement from 14 supervisors who themselves are veterans of the Miami summer jobs program.

“The supervisors are in constant communication with the youth, via calls, text, email,” Sotelo said. “They can relate to their supervisors, because their supervisors have been one of them. For some, it’s their first time working. They’ve never had that experience, so their supervisor guides them through it.”

What’s critical, Sotelo said, is not just that the youth are working on a project that’s important to city leadership, but also that this work feels different from the weird ending to the school year they just completed.

“We didn’t want the youth to continue to feel like they’re going to school throughout the summer,” Sotelo said. “They’re actually gaining customer service experience and how to manage difficult situations. These are things they can gain and take with them.”

Photo courtsey of Shutterstock

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