Civic Tech Can Improve Summer Youth Employment. Here’s How.

With unemployment for young people skyrocketing to 20% in recent years, finding a summer job is harder—and more important—than ever before

The bell rang as I threw my pencil down. With that monotone sound, summer vacation had officially begun.

It was the end of my sophomore year of high school in my hometown of South Burlington, Vermont. My friends and I celebrated the end of school with a weekend of video games and bonfires (burning all of our bio and geometry notes, of course). After that weekend, we all geared up for what would occupy most of our days for the next nine weeks — summer jobs. In the coming months, we worked as grocery store clerks, lifeguards, sandwich artists, and more.

Today, fewer and fewer young people in the U.S. spend their summers working simple jobs like I did. It’s just too hard to find a one.

Every year, 3.4 million young people who want a job can’t find one.

Today’s youth unemployment rate is almost 20%, nearly five times higher than for the general population, and the unemployment rate for young people of color is even higher. Every year, 3.4 million young people who want a job can’t find one.

When you dig deeper, the numbers look more bleak:

  • Only 26% of teenagers (16–18) held paid jobs in 2011, representing the lowest average rate of youth employment since World War II
  • The county has seen a a 40% decline in summer youth employment from 1999–2013

And when you account for racial and socioeconomic disparity, the challenges are even worse:

  • Teens from a family earning less than $20,000 annually were 20 percentage points less likely to have a summer job than a teen from a family earning over $60,000 per year
  • Even more striking, if a teen from the more affluent family where white and the teen from the poorer family black, the white teen would be five times more likely to be employed for the summer

The benefits of summer employment are profound for young people: learning the culture of work, earning money legally, building a professional network, and even saving lives. Lack of access to summer jobs threatens to further widen social and economic gaps, particularly as more and more jobs require postsecondary education, training, and certifications.


We need to engage businesses and build job programs

There is no doubt that improving engagement among private-sector businesses and job placement programs is a crucial next step. We need to build the capacity of summer youth employment programs so they can employ more people and support more employers.

Both are key priorities outlined in “Building Skills through Summer Jobs: Lessons from a Field,” a report produced by J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. as part of its New Skills at Work initiative. And building employment program capacity is a problem ripe for civic technology intervention.

The report calls for the agencies and organizations coordinating youth employment programs — some of which serve upwards of 3,000 people per year — to streamline their operations by making it easier for businesses to participate, using technology to improve matching job seekers to open positions, and improving the user-experience for youth looking for work.

It’s almost as if this challenge was written for civic tech to solve.


Tackling the problem in Boston

That’s exactly what’s happening in Boston. The City of Boston, the Boston Foundation, the Metropolitan Area Planning Council (MAPC), and Code for Boston have partnered to increase access to summer jobs for thousands of local youth. This cross-sector partnership is part of the Civic Tech and Data Collaborative (CTDC), a national initiative of Living Cities, National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, and Code for America.

For the Boston coalition, the problem has a few layers. For one thing, 40% of the roughly 8,000 youth who apply to the summer jobs program actually get placed each summer, making their program one of the most successful in the nation. We know that the program can still do better. Find jobs for each of the 3,000 youth fortunate enough to get into the program is an arduous process for both the applicants and the staff within Boston’s Department of Youth Engagement and Employment (DYEE).

It involves manual workflows, multiple rounds of phone tag, and time-intensive processes to match each job seeker with a summer job. This process severely limits how much time DYEE staff can spend developing a larger inventory of summer job opportunities because they are focused on immediately placing people.

Adding to the challenge, the department’s technology currently is not mobile-friendly, which is a huge obstacle to reaching young people who increasingly rely on their phones. And maintaining the system requires hours of staff time and expertise.

Exemplifying one of CfA’s core values — “with, not for” — the Boston CTDC partners hired 12 youth to work alongside DYEE and MAPC staff to put user needs at the center of the product development process.

User research led to the development team creating the first piece of an upcoming youth jobs tool: an algorithm that automates the process of matching each youth to an available job based on multiple factors, including applicant interest, transit pass availability, commute time, and geographic equity of opportunity. The algorithm has the potential to help connect young people with better jobs, and it may also save staff thousands of hours per year trying to match people manually.

The algorithm has the potential to help connect young people with better jobs, and it may also save staff thousands of hours per year trying to match people manually.

This summer, the team is working with MIT’s Department of Economics to test the matching algorithm and evaluate it against current workflows for effectiveness and efficiency. When the youth jobs tool is complete, it could be used to create a unified summer jobs portal shared by three different Boston summer job programs. The tool could also be released for other communities to use as open-source software, helping more programs seeking to modernize their approach and maximize the number of youth and employers who benefit from the program.


Building up and building out

Finding a summer job isn’t what it used to be. These programs must change with the time, and I hope more cities and regions follow the lead of innovative peers like Boston.

Stay up to date with the Boston youth employment project by signing up to receive Code for America’s monthly Economic Development newsletter. You can read more about the partners involved here and here.


The spark for this project came as Code for Boston prepared and its partners geared up for the 2015 National Day of Civic Hacking — a national day of action where developers, government employees, residents, UX designers, journalists, and data scientists come together to solve challenges in their communities by leveraging civic tech. If you want to be the spark for this type of change in your community, get involved with a National Day of Civic Hacking event this weekend.

Special thanks to Alicia Rouault and the Digital Services team at MAPC for contributing to this post.