Boston summer youth jobs program is more equitable, efficient thanks to Northeastern research, algorithm

It’s a huge task to hire 9,000 youths for summer jobs. 

Perhaps even more difficult is ensuring that the hiring is equitable. 

But a new policy brief demonstrates how the Community 2 Community (C2C) impact accelerator at Northeastern University and the city of Boston accomplished these tasks and can continue to do so in the future.

“It’s very hard to get your foot in the door to get those first employment opportunities,” says Alicia Modestino, associate professor in economics and in the School of Public Policy and Urban Affairs and research director for the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy at Northeastern. “This program is one of the few things that levels the playing field among young people to ensure that everyone gets that first employment opportunity and builds skills.”

Boston’s Summer Youth Employment Program is a nearly $10 million annual program to provide thousands of youths with summer jobs with hundreds of local employers. 

The program has two primary goals: to provide young people with the tools and experience necessary to navigate the job market on their own; and to reduce inequality of opportunity across different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups by increasing access to early employment experiences.

“We feel that youth jobs are truly essential to giving young people a space to develop themselves, to explore where their interests can intersect with their desire to change the world, and to develop skills to prepare for future careers and educational opportunities,” says Rashad Cope, deputy chief of the Worker Empowerment Cabinet and the Office of Youth Employment and Opportunity for the city of Boston. 

Alicia Modestino and Rashad Cope sitting next to each other at the Bridge to Calculus End of Summer Celebration.
“This program is one of the few things that levels the playing field among young people to ensure that everyone gets that first employment opportunity and builds skills” said Northeastern profesor Alicia Modestino. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Since 2015, the city has partnered with Northeastern to evaluate the program. 

This partnership has resulted in research that shows several benefits of the program, including increased employment and wages, increased academic achievement and decreased involvement with the criminal justice system.

Improvements in job readiness skills were linked to a 9% increase in employment and 30% increase in wages for young people of color ages 19 to 24 in the year following their participation in the program.  

The Boston program also has been found to improve academic outcomes and boost high school graduation and college enrollment rates by raising academic aspirations and improving work habits. Participants’ attendance and grades improved, and high school drop-out rates were reduced by 22%, according to the research.

The research has also found that the program reduces criminal justice involvement by fostering community engagement and soft skills — participants were 30% less likely to commit both violent and property crime relative to a control group during the 18 months following the program.

Finally, the research has found that improvements in these areas — improved job readiness and educational aspirations, and decreased criminal justice system contact — were larger among Black and Hispanic youth, suggesting that the program “has the potential to reduce inequality across groups,” according to the policy brief.

These findings led to an additional $4 million investment during summer 2020 to support four new tracks of program including a new Learn and Earn program. This past summer, the city’s expanded Learn and Earn program led to Northeastern employing 155 youth on the Boston campus to participate in its Bridge to Calculus program and work across 30 different university departments.

But these outcomes are only realized if the youths actually find employment. 

That hasn’t always been the case. 

In 2022, aided by a grant from the William T. Grant Foundation, Cope and Modestino evaluated the program for two factors: efficiency and equity.  

“We wanted to ‘Build Back Better’ out of COVID,” Modestino says. “It was a good moment to think about how you can do things more equitably and more efficiently so that you can ensure you are using all the resources available.”

To evaluate the efficiency of the program, researchers looked at how many of the program’s jobs were filled each summer versus how many opportunities were unfilled, which left youth unemployed, staffing shortages at nonprofit employers and unspent funding. 

To measure equity, the researchers compared the race, ethnicity and school type (for example, an exam school versus an open enrollment school) of young people selected for jobs with the overall applicant pool. 

The researchers found some “challenges,” Modestino says.

“Matching young people to jobs within a summer youth employment program is very challenging, and this happens especially when you have different types of young people with different skills and interests they’re looking to apply in this program, and lots of different employers who have needs to be filled as well,” Modestino says. 

Rashad Cope speaking at the Bridge to Calculus End of Summer Celebration.
Rashad Cope, deputy chief of the Worker Empowerment Cabinet and the Office of Youth Employment and Opportunity for the city of Boston, speaks at the Bridge to Calculus End of Summer Celebration held in Raytheon Amphitheater on Northeastern University’s Boston campus. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Cope and Modestino found nearly 1,000 jobs were unfilled in the summers of 2020 and 2021, leaving money that had been approved for the program unspent.

This was attributed to several factors. 

Roughly one-third of youths who registered to sign up for the program failed to complete an application, suggesting a burdensome application process, Cope and Modestino say. 

Moreover, 53% of youths only applied to one job, leading to high numbers of applicants for some of the most popular posts — the New England Aquarium had 650 applications for 20 spots one year, Modestino says — and no candidates for other jobs. 

Examining equity, Cope and Modestino found that employers tended to select the same youths for multiple positions while others are not selected at all. 

The selections also often show disparities by race and ethnicity, the researchers found — with employers “nearly twice as likely to select white youth relative to the percentage of whites in the applicant pool. Employers also selected a larger proportion of native English speakers and students from Boston’s exam schools.

In addition, Black and Hispanic youth were more likely to be among the 15% of youths who were matched to a job but did not complete the onboarding process — which included uploading documents like a work permit, proof of residency, a Social Security card, etc.

“Anecdotally, we knew a lot of these challenges existed, but it was very difficult to communicate these challenges from a policy standpoint to our administration without data to back it up,” Cope says. “We were excited to lean on Northeastern to add some credibility to this work and to the challenges that we know existed, so that we could really develop a plan that we could use to address some of these issues.”

So develop a plan they did. 

In 2022, the city and researchers piloted a job-matching algorithm stratified by race and ethnicity to increase the number of jobs filled and the diversity of youths served. Several actions were also taken to streamline the city’s application, selection and hiring process, and the city and researchers expanded outreach efforts with Boston Public Schools to reach more youth job seekers.

The efforts were successful. 

During summer 2022, the algorithm was used to backfill open positions, and it successfully improved equity across job placements by race and ethnicity. In summer 2023, the algorithm and expanded outreach resulted in a workforce that matched the demographics of the total pool of applicants. 

In addition, no jobs were left unfilled in summer 2023, even though the city expanded the program from 7,000 to 9,000 jobs.

But there is more work to be done.

“Now proving that it works, we’re better able to advocate for a better platform, better infrastructure, to institutionalize these improvements that we’ve made,” Modestino says.

A top target is improving the portal that youth use to apply online for jobs. 

“There are some challenges with the type of infrastructure currently in place that we are using for people to apply to jobs, be selected, to have young people raise their hand and accept the job offered,” Cope said. “We have some recommendations around ways we can centralize some of these processes through a common intake form, and have a system that serves as a depository of all youth applicants, so we can better track people, better see inequities that may exist, and see ways we can really improve the program.”

Modestino and Cope also hope that better tracking youth employees can ensure that their job experiences “ladder up,” as Modestino calls it — meaning that a youth’s experience can progress up a career pathway and align with career training opportunities and school curricula.

“There is an ongoing focus to improve youth jobs to ensure that young people are exposed to careers,” Cope says. “We are trying to shift the narrative of this youth jobs program to ensure it is focusing more on workforce readiness, creating pathways in emergent sectors, and that is the work that is coming out of 2022 and will continue to set the tone for the next couple of years as well.”

Modestino praised the city of Boston for the collaboration.

“As a researcher, this has been such a rewarding experience to be able to work closely with Rashad and his team over the past 8 years and see our research evidence put into practice to improve and expand opportunities for Boston’s youth,” Modestino says. “It’s a great example of the kind of impact C2C aims to bring across the global university system.”

Cyrus Moulton is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on X/Twitter @MoultonCyrus.

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