David R. Jones (137830)
David R. Jones Credit: Contributed

One point of light that I am happy about is the news that the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP), will be restored to its full service level, after it was cancelled last year, and only eventually restored– through the hard work of advocates, with youth in the lead— to approximately half its service level, using remote internships and work-based learning experiences. This summer should see it back at its 75,000 participant level, which is baselined in the city budget, hopefully keeping it out of danger in the years to come.

SYEP is a terrific program, and my organization, the Community Service Society (CSS), has led the calls for its expansion into a universal, school connected program. Under this model, community-based organizations that administer the program partner with schools to create summer opportunities for students that build on their interests. And students return to school in the Fall with more skills and confidence, an expanded social network, and a greater sense of direction about their path ahead.

But the truth is, 75,000 slots are not enough. More than 130,000 young people apply each year to SYEP, meaning that 55,000 are turned away. We know that higher income parents already find ways to make summer count for young people, either using their connections to get them a job or to pay for an experience they can put on their résumé and college applications. Indeed, the fact that lower-income parents have less ability to do so is a major driver of inequity in outcomes for young people.

After a school year in which academic outcomes for many low-income Black and brown students took a hit as a result of COVID-19 and the digital divide, ensuring that our youth are engaged in meaningful summer activities is imperative. Expanding SYEP is a good place to start. For many teens from economically-disadvantaged neighborhoods these jobs are a lifeline. Studies show that summer youth jobs reduce the chances of incarceration and mortality from violent crime and accidents.

SYEP should provide summer jobs for every high school student. And that should be just the first step to ensure that our education systems do a much better job of connecting school and employment. Work experiences and career exposure in high school can inform and empower students with greater knowledge of themselves and their interests, as well as social connections and information about how to pursue those interests. This will lead to informed and improved decisions about college and work.

Once in college, students should be visiting career centers on the first day of their journey, allowing them to choose courses and programs that align with what they want to pursue. Those programs should all feature paid, real-world internships and applied learning experiences, with exposure to professionals in the field. This approach can unlock one of New York City’s greatest asset bases — the unmatched diversity of scale of our employer base — using it to empower students, but also to create a talent pipeline that will supercharge our economy.

I am proud to add my voice to a rapidly growing movement of young people, educators, and employers calling for change in this direction. Pathways to Prosperity NYC: Building a Thriving, Inclusive Economy Powered by Our Students is a campaign that brings together employers, schools, educators, young people and non-profits focused on improving racial equity and New York’s talent pipeline by strengthening career pathways for young people across New York City.

As New York City emerges from COVID-19, now is the moment to rebuild an economy that is stronger than it was before — an equitable, thriving economy that includes young people of color and is powered by local talent that our City has been missing out on.

Our economy is based on the assumption that we do a good job matching talent to opportunity. We do not — and the result is an economy that leaves young Black and Latinx New Yorkers behind and wastes talent and resources. Using innovative approaches to connect schooling and employment for our public high school and college students is a major lever in a citywide economic development strategy and essential to an inclusive recovery.

A braided learning approach means educational institutions and employers share responsibility for fostering young people’s talent by pairing in-school curriculum with employment opportunities. Students do real work in the real world and build on academic instruction to further develop their skills, interests and networks. And employers get to develop talent pipelines from under-represented communities.

As we emerge from the pandemic, let’s use this opportunity to rethink how we both support more young people to succeed, and create a more inclusive local economy that provides strong pipelines of local talent for our best jobs. Instead of going back to normal, let’s create something better. Universal SYEP should be the first step–with a bigger and better talent development system to follow.

David R. Jones, Esq., is President and CEO of the Community Service Society of New York (CSS), the leading voice on behalf of low-income New Yorkers for more than 170 years. The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer. The Urban Agenda is available on CSS’s website: www.cssny.org.