The Whys, Ways, and Means of Summer Youth Employment

“A first job means more than a paycheque. It can mean increased self-confidence, access to mentors, exposure to opportunities beyond your neighbourhood, understanding the value of education, and it builds the belief that your current circumstances do not define your future possibilities.”

– Susan McIssac, Former President and CEO, United Way Toronto and York Region, Civic Action Board (Escalator Jobs for Youth Facing Barriers)

It has been a couple of weeks since school let out for the summer. With the end of school comes the question for students and families of what to do until school starts again. My family eagerly anticipates the end of school because it means the beginning of splash pad season in Toronto which is made possible in part because of a youth summer employment initiative. The staff that run the city splash pads are predominantly high school age students. This is one of many urgently needed youth summer employment initiatives across Ontario and Canada.

There is a growing recognition that summer jobs for youth are important.  Research demonstrates that summer jobs for youth can:

Provide youth with an income
Summer employment gives youth the opportunity to earn an income and to further develop financial management skills. Income from a summer job can be used to contribute to securing the necessities of life, saving for life after high school, and for having some summer fun. Some youth are able to secure jobs through family connections. Summer jobs programs are particularly important for those who don’t have an extended network that allows for this. For example, newcomer and immigrant youth often cannot call on their network for this kind of access to employment.

Develop skills
Summer jobs provide youth with the opportunity to develop general work-based competencies, frequently referred to as 21st century or “soft” skills, which include social, communication, problem-solving, emotional management and self-awareness competencies. More specialized skills set can be developed depending on the job. It is worth noting that not all jobs are created equal in terms of what a youth will gain from the experience. However, a recent Canadian study found that we shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the potential benefit of entry-level employment opportunities for youth.

Improve educational outcomes
Multiple studies (which you can read here, and here) suggest that youth summer employment has a positive impact on academic success. One study noted improvements in standardized math and English scores. This is important when considering research that indicates summer breaks have a negative effect on math scores particularly for youth from lower socio-economic households.

Decrease criminal behaviour
Summer employment opportunities for marginalized youth can prevent involvement with the criminal justice system. Sarah Heller’s research in Chicago found that the arrest rate for youth who participated in the One Summer Plus program decreased by 43% when compared to a control group. Another study in New York City also found that participants in the summer job program were less likely to be incarcerated or die from “external causes”.

Finally, summer jobs have the potential to provide opportunities for positive youth development.  In a recent report from the Brookings Institute, Martha Ross and Richard Kazis summarize:

“[work can] expose teens and young adults to new ideas, people, and perspectives and provides opportunities for young people to act in new ways and reflect on their experiences. In order to develop the sense of agency, identity, and competencies necessary for adult success, young people need positive activities, coupled with strong, supportive, and sustained relationships with adults” (Ross and Kazis, 2016, p. 14).  

However, in order to support these broader positive youth development outcomes, the employment opportunity needs to be designed, supported and resourced with that in mind.

The benefits of youth summer employment are clear, but summer jobs for youth are not easy to come by. Economists point to slow recovery from the recession of 2008 and slow economic growth as causing older workers to seek out part-time positions that youth would have historically filled. Youth are then competing with adults with a life time of experience for the same jobs.

The government tries to counter this by incentivizing and subsidizing youth employment but despite these investments demand outstrips available opportunities. In June, Stats Canada reported that the youth unemployment rate for those planning on returning to school in the September stood at 10.5%. These numbers obscure that not everyone has equal access to summer jobs. In Ontario, certain groups of youth face additional barriers to employment. The barriers these youth face, as identified by Civic Action, include:

      • Weakened social networks as result of systemic barriers
      • A lack of meaningful opportunities
      • Lack of accessible and affordable transportation
      • Racism and structural discrimination

Youth summer jobs have the potential to support youth development outcomes across a range of fields. However, in order to do so, these opportunities must be intentionally designed to support these outcomes.  

The challenge for employers who “just want to get the job done” is that it takes time and effort to develop the organizational capacity to address barriers to equitable workforce participation for marginalized youth and design opportunities that support positive youth development outcomes while at the same time fulfilling the organization’s needs.

One place to begin this work is to refer to the resource that Amy Hosotsuji and Duane Hall prepared for one of our first YouthREX webinars, 10 Ways to Meaningfully Engage Underrepresented Youth.

For youth looking for summer employment, you need to start thinking and planning ahead throughout the year. For example, to be a splash pad or wading pool attendant in Toronto you must be 14 years or older and have Lifesaving, Standard First Aid and CRR certifications. The splash pad attendants would have needed to get the training to earn these certifications prior to the application deadline in May. The City of Toronto has produced a booklet for prospective young employees that can help you plan ahead. Other things you can do to increase your chances of getting a summer job include getting help to prepare a resume, volunteering, networking, developing workplace skills, seeking out employment mentors and connecting with youth employment programs in advance of the July rush.


Young Worker Tip Sheet

Youth Employment Resources

Feature image by Ryan Tauss.

Rebecca Houwer
YouthREX Manager of Knowledge Exchange

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