On Helping Teens Get Their First Jobs

This is a guest post by Trinh Nguyen, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development (OWD) in Boston and Alicia Sasser Modestino, associate professor with appointments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Department of Economics at Northeastern University.

The U.S. is currently experiencing its longest stretch of continuous monthly job creation and the lowest unemployment rate (3.7 percent) in 50 years. A tight labor market often improves job prospects for typically hard-to-employ groups with fewer skills and less experience, including teens.

However, as of October 2018, the U.S. unemployment rate for teens remained high at 11.9 percent – more than three times the overall rate. Even more worrisome has been the decline, since 2001, in the share of teens participating in the labor force. As of August, 37.1 percent of teens were participating in the labor market, far below the historical peak of 59.3 percent in August 1978.

Yet summer jobs remain important for teens’ future prospects.

Why Summer Jobs Matter

For some teens, working has been replaced by other enriching activities such as coding camps, preparing for academic tests or travel – all of which look good on a college application. But for others who might not be college-bound, the lack of early work experience can negatively affect employment and earnings later in life.

Over half of unemployed teens report that they are searching for their first job, suggesting that fewer pathways exist for them to enter the labor market. The greatest difficulties are faced by African American and Hispanic teens – especially those from low-income families in impoverished neighborhoods.

To level the playing field, policymakers in many large U.S. cities use summer employment programs to provide early work experiences to inner-city, low-income youth. By placing teens in subsidized jobs with government agencies, non-profit organizations and private employers, summer programs were initially seen as a way to increase family earnings, improve future employment prospects and reduce crime. Now city and state leaders hope to use summer jobs programs to reduce inequality by improving teens’ job readiness and financial skills, and boosting their academic and career aspirations.

Are Summer Job Programs Effective?

Research studies in cities such as Boston, Chicago and New York have demonstrated that summer youth employment programs can boost employment and wages during the summer and have longer-term impacts.

I have been working with the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development to assess program impacts both short-term (during the summer) and longer-term (during the 12 to 18 months after participation). Because there are more youth applicants than program jobs available, participation is assigned by lottery. This means researchers can compare participants to a random set of similar applicants who did not win spots in the program. Here is what we found:

  • Short-Term Program Impacts:Compared to those not admitted to the summer jobs program, participants reported significant improvements in community engagement and social skills, increased aspirations to attend either a two- or four-year college, and enhanced job readiness skills such as being able to write a resume or be successful in an interview.
  • Long-Term Program Outcomes:Data from public records showed that youth admitted to the program also fared better in jobs and academic performance and were more likely to avoid trouble in the criminal justice system. Arrests in the 18 months following participation in the program decreased by 35 percent for violent crimes and by 57 percent for property-related crimes relative to the control group. Average school attendance increased by 2.5 percent and course reductions fell by 15.3 percent. Among older minority youth, employment grew by seven percent and wages by 12 percent.

In most cases, the largest gains were made among “at-risk” youth, suggesting that summer jobs programs may reduce achievement gaps. Future research will try to pinpoint which program features matter most – such as subsidized versus non-subsidized jobs, the number of summers a young person participates and whether the program includes career readiness training.

Expanding the Reach of Summer Jobs Programs

Despite encouraging results, little has been done to expand summer jobs programs at either the local or federal level.

In the early 1990s, federal funding was terminated on the assumption that in a full-employment economy, employers would hire youth without any government subsidy. Some large city mayors pulled together funds from various sources to sustain their programs, recognizing that inner city youth rarely get hired even in the best economic times.

But program slots have not been sufficient given a rising minimum wage and growing applicant pools. In Boston, roughly half of those applying must enter a lottery, and among those who do not win program slots, only one in four finds a job on their own.

With little help from the federal government, cities search for alternative sources of funding. In Boston, my evaluation was used to explore whether additional dollars could be attracted from the private sector. By linking the survey responses from participants to subsequent administrative data about them and others not admitted to the program, our study was able to explain how summer jobs programs improve job skills and career prospects. This may make it possible to attract more funding for these summer programs and incentivize activities that lead to better outcomes.

Summer jobs programs work – and everyone benefits.


TN official headshot1 About the Authors: Trinh Nguyen is the Director of the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development (OWD) in Boston. She previously served as Chief of Staff at the Boston Housing Authority and holds dual graduate degrees and an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management. 




Alicia Sasser Modestino is an associate professor with appointments in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and the Department of Economics at Northeastern University. Since 2015 she has also served as the associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy and is a nonresident fellow in the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. She currently leads a multi-year program evaluation of the Boston Summer Youth Employment Program funded by the William T. Grant Foundation.