However you feel about big-box retail setting up shop in New York, Walmart’s announcement last week of a $4-million donation to New York City’s Summer Youth Employment Program (SYEP) offered some cause for celebration. According to the New York City government, private funds donated by Walmart and other companies will enable the program to provide an additional 4,000 New York City youth (aged 14 to 24 years old) with summer employment and educational opportunities. This comes on top of the 24,000 slots the program had secured through public funds alone.
SYEP, which began in the 1960s, places youth in various minimum-wage jobs at camps, parks, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, retail companies, and small businesses across the five boroughs of New York City. It also offers career exploration opportunities, training in financial literacy and information about post-secondary educational opportunities. Though reduced from the 35,000 placements made in 2010 and the 52,000 made in 2009, the 28,000 jobs SYEP will offer youth this summer are good news at a time when 24.5 percent of 16- to 19-year olds and 14.5 percent of 20- to 24-year-olds are unemployed across the country. But still, with 131,000 young people filing applications to be a part of SYEP this year, there remains unmet demand by aspiring workers.
SYEP and other programs that help youth enter the workforce are essential to fostering personal and professional development, and to keeping their countries’ economies competitive. Research and anecdotal evidence have shown that, besides enabling youth to meet the short-term imperatives of helping put food on the table, pay for books and support families, early work experience also yields many long-term intangible benefits. These include learning discipline and professional behavior, gaining life skills training, and acquiring work experience—all of which further increase their ability to eventually find permanent employment.
Students who work during high school tend to stay in school, graduate and pursue higher education, while their early work experience also makes it likely they will command a higher salary when they reenter the labor force in their twenties and throughout their lifetimes. In contrast, young people who fail to secure employment early on may compromise their future prospects and possibly detach from the labor force altogether, leading to possible involvement in drugs and crime, unstable future labor trajectories and social exclusion.
All of this holds true as well in Latin America and the Caribbean, where a 15.8 percent unemployment rate among 15- to 24-year olds in 2010 (nearly 40 percent of total unemployment) has security ramifications in addition to economic ones. Following the Central American Integration System (SICA) summit in late June—at which the leaders of seven Central American states agreed on a joint regional security strategy—USAID, the U.S. Department of State and the Organization of American States (OAS) held a conference in Washington DC dedicated specifically to the ties between youth development and crime prevention in the Americas. “Crime, drug trafficking and violence are a threat to democracy, rule of law and economic development in the Americas,” OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza said. “And the region’s young people, one in three of whom neither works nor studies, are the most vulnerable to crime.”
One conclusion of that conference was that, in addition to developing better policing mechanisms, reforming juvenile justice and creating outlets for expression, investing in youth through education, vocational training and job placement programs diminishes those threats. Such programs give youth reasons not to join the maras and other criminal gangs; train future police and civic leaders in ethics and good decision-making; and equip young people to enter the work force with skills that match the needs of businesses operating in the region (or hoping to do so in the future).
Progress toward greater youth employment is being made in the U.S. and across the hemisphere, especially outside the traditional four walls of a classroom. Policymakers have deployed such mechanisms as conditional cash transfers and tax incentives for businesses that hire young people, while nonprofit organizations and public-private partnerships are increasingly being used to promote youth entrepreneurship and incorporate youth into formal labor markets. Some of these examples are documented in this blog post on security in Central America, an Americas Society white paper on youth labor market access in Colombia and Peru, and a 2010 International Labour Organization study on global trends in unemployment.
Another means of boosting youth unemployment, as recently suggested by the Center for American Progress, is the national service program, which already exists in the U.S. and in which more than 90,000 youth participated in 2009. Though not meant to provide long-term employment, these types of programs help out-of-work youth and recent graduates develop essential employment skills while offering them a poverty-level salary, benefits and education awards. They also build the capacity of nonprofit and community organizations to serve local communities—for example, building low-income housing, providing public health education and connecting people to legal services—while also returning money to those communities in the form of purchases at local businesses.
Many New Yorkers last week greeted Walmart’s donation with skepticism, viewing it as a strategic step in the company’s overall campaign to open a store within the five boroughs. Labor advocates and some City Council members are opposed to this, arguing that the company maintains unfair hiring practices, adheres to poor wage and benefits standards, and will hurt local and small businesses.
Regardless of the ultimate outcome of Walmart’s aspirations in the Big Apple, one result of last week’s philanthropic donation is undoubtedly positive. In today’s global and domestic context of labor insecurity, particularly among youth (unemployment in their age group is at least two to three times more common than among adults), any measure that helps employ youth and stave off future labor market detachment and the negative cycle it can catalyze is a welcome development.
*Nina Agrawal is associate editor of Americas Quarterly and policy associate at Americas Society and Council of the Americas.